“autistic toddler” offensive?

A letter to Scientific American Mind (in the November/December 2010 issue) from Greg O’Brien of Gray, Maine:

In Erica Westly’s article “Too Much, Too Young” [Head Lines]. she uses the phrase “autistic toddlers.” I feel it is important that the editors recognize the disrespect inherent in that construction. The reverent phrasing would have been “toddlers with autism,” because people with autism (or any disability) are people first! This sentiment is exactly why we have the Americans with Disabilities Act and not the Disabled Americans Act. I would recommend, or at least request, editing articles of this ilk with an eye out for lapses in judgment.

There’s a shorter expression, autistic toddler, and a longer one, toddler with autism, both have toddler as the head noun, and they’re truth-functionally equivalent. In addition to the length difference, though, they differ as to which of the characteristics, autism or toddlerhood, is mentioned first. Perhaps that’s why O’Brien sees the shorter expression as disrespectful; perhaps he judges that mentioning the autism first highights it. (Though you could also argue that the highlighted characteristic comes with the word that gets the heavier phrasal accent: toddler in the shorter expression, autism in the longer.)

It’s hard to know what to say about the very strong, even passionate, associations people have to alternative phrasings in socially sensitive domains — beyond the fact that people do have them (and, not infrequently, differ as to what associations they have), that like other sociocultural attitudes they diffuse from person to person, and that they are often justified by some reasoning from first principles.

I’ve visited the disability question to some degree on this blog here, in a discussion of being disabled vs. having a disability (and disabled person vs. person with a disability). There are endless other cases, of many different types.

Back in August a Language Log guest posting by Larry Horn, took up the case of transgender vs. transgendered, with a huge number of comments, some of them arguing that transgendered (incorrectly) shifts the focus of expressions onto the medical or surgical aspects of the matter.

Elsewhere you can find arguments about the choice between hyphenated Irish-American and separated Irish American (and similar hyphenated vs. separated pairs).

And of course controversies over Jew vs. Jewish (and the noun homosexual vs. the adjective homosexual and other noun-adjective pairs) in various contexts, with some objecting to the more “essentializing” noun variants (and others opting for them on the grounds that the essentializing connotations are just the ones they want).


5 Responses to ““autistic toddler” offensive?”

  1. alyxandr Says:

    English is not a Romance language — I think most of us are perfectly fine with the adjective coming before the noun, and that this doesn’t imply anything about which is more important. I’ll start saying “person with a disability” when the people who want me to use that phraseology start saying “ice cream of vanilla of French”.

  2. The Ridger Says:

    The real reason, as I understand it, that “autistic toddler” is disliked is because the next move – as has happened with many of these terms – is to drop the noun or sometimes to create a new noun based on the adjective. Homosexual, retard, cripple – the disabled,the blind, the deaf, the elderly, the gays, the coloreds. All of these turn the person into the characteristic.

    Now, that’s true of other metonymic expressions – the blonde, for instance. But in the case of the disabled vs people with disabilities and the like, the term used for defining is both limiting and often pejorative. Saying “people with/of” isn’t such a hard thing to do to avoid making people feel less like objects of scorn or pity and more like people.

  3. bfwebster Says:

    As the grandfather of an Asperger’s (high-functioning-autistic) child, I didn’t read “autistic toddler” to mean anything _other_ than “a toddle with autism”. The idea that “autistic toddler” is somehow disrespectful or judgmental by placing the word “autistic” before “toddler” strikes me as the worst sort of political correctness. Ditto for Ridger’s conclusion that eliding the noun conflates the person with the characteristic: the pejorative (or complimentary) aspect lies in the semantic and judgmental weight one gives to the adjective, with or without the attendant noun; I’d much rather someone say to me, “Hey, handsome” rather than “Hey, fatty”, though honesty compels me to consider the second far more honest and accurate than the first.

    Somewhere in here are honest concerns about how our language towards others impacts their standing in their own eyes and in the eyes of others. But I also can’t help but feel that somewhere in here is a semantic equivalent to Reynold’s Law (“Subsidizing the markers of status doesn’t produce the character traits that result in that status; it undermines them.”) ..bruce..

  4. Monika Says:

    Jim Sinclair (one of the leading self-advocates) has explained why he himself does not use person-first language: “Saying ‘person with autism’ suggests that the autism can be separated from the person, but this is not the case. If I did not have an autistic brain, the person that I am would not exist. I am autistic because autism is an essential feature of me as a person.”

  5. Sheogorath Says:

    Put it this way; saying ‘Autistic toddlers’ in no way defines the children by their neurology any more than calling them ‘African-American toddlers’ defines them by their ethnicity. And anyways, if someone has to use such linguistic gymnastics to remind themselves that Autistics are people, then they clearly don’t believe in their personhood. Simples!

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