autistic again

A letter (“Consistent we are”) to New Scientist, 11/2/11 from Hans Proebsting, Freeburgh, Victoria, Australia:

Your story “I’m autistic, I don’t care what you think” was interesting (15 October, p 19). I have autism, and I think researcher Keise Izuma got it right. We are more likely than neurotypicals to be consistent in our behaviour, regardless of whether we are observed or not.

Incidentally, terminology has moved on. “Is autistic” is no longer an acceptable expression. The term “has autism” is technically accurate. Autism is what we have, it is not what we are.

The objection is to autistic used as an adjective, in particular as a predicate adjective, on the basis of a presumed association between syntax and semantics. Apparently, Proebsting takes adjectives to convey Aristotelian essences (rather than accidents), consequently objects to autistic on the grounds that autism is not an essential property, and appeals to some wider consensus that these positions are correct.

We’ve been here before, though with respect to prenominal uses of autistic, rather than predicative uses: in a letter about autistic toddlers, used in a Scientific American Mind article:

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!

In this case, the objection is at least in part to the ordering of the elements, with the Adj autistic ordered first, before the head N toddlers; that is, the autism appears to take precedence over the people. That assumes a very close association between syntax and semantics; toddlers with autism puts the people first, so is acceptable to the writer while autistic toddlers is not.

As I noted in this case, people have very strong, even passionate, associations to alternative phrasings in socially sensitive domains. In the autistic-toddlers case, the alternatives are truth-functionally equivalent, so the difference between the phrasings is a matter of pragmatics. You could argue that in alternations between prenominal Adj (autistic) and postnominal PP with an object N related to the Adj (autism), the head N (toddlers) is foregrounded in the first case, but the other element (autism) is foregrounded in the second — because these are the elements that get the phrasal accent. Compare talented writer with writer of/with talent. Or, for that matter, talented writer with writer who is talented / writer who has talent (and autistic toddlers with toddlers who are autistic / toddlers who have autism).

For a similar case, consider disabled person/people vs. person/people with a disability, discussed here.; the argument from disabilities rights groups is that

the humanity of people with a disability should not be circumscribed by the disability itself (‘the disability is not the person’)

(Of course, there’s no arguing with someone else’s strong emotional associations to syntactic constructions; they’re just there, whatever their source.)

Such views can be extended from prenominal Adj to predicative Adj, as in Proebsting’s letter above; even person who is autistic would be suspect on this view. Here the unstated assumption seems to be that Adj denotes an essential property, while with N or having N denotes an accidental property. From AHD5 on accident:

Philosophy  A circumstance or attribute that is not essential to the nature of something.

More detail in Wikipedia:

Accident, as used in philosophy, is an attribute which may or may not belong to a subject, without affecting its essence.

… Aristotle made a distinction between the essential and accidental properties of a thing. For example, a chair can be made of wood, metal, or plastic, but this is an accident: it is accidental to its being a chair. It is still a chair regardless of the material it is made of. To put this in technical terms, an accident is a property which has no necessary connection to the essence of the thing being described.

Note that essences tend to be expressed via Ns, accidents via Adjs. But in any case, Adjs denote attributes, and attributes can be accidental or essential. So semantics gives no particular support to the idea that autistic is an unacceptable term because autism is an accidental attribute, not an essential one, though that seems to have become the doctrine of groups concerned with autism.

Not every person with autism finds this position palatable. Here, for instance is a letter to New Scientist (“I am what I am”, from Ametrine Lavender, of Todmorden, West Yorkshire, UK, on 11/23/11):

In his letter (5 November, p 33), Hans Proebsting writes: “Autism is what we have, not who we are.” Personally, as hypersensitivity is a major aspect of my autism, autism affects everything, from what I like to eat to what I wear, where I live to who I want to spend my time with.

There is no non-autistic person inside me waiting to get out, as autistic author Donna Williams discovered and wrote about in her book Nobody Nowhere.

Even if you agree that autism is an accidental, not an essential, attribute of particular people, you could still argue that there’s nothing wrong with using the Adj autistic. But, as with disabled, reason might now be beside the point, some people’s emotional associations to the word having become so strong.

4 Responses to “autistic again”

  1. Daniel Says:

    Everything you say about people’s emotional responses is true, and is probably the most important point here. But from a linguistic perspective, is there perhaps something going on with the given-new information structure in the phrase? As you know, sentences tend to begin with given information that provides cohesion with ongoing discourse, and then move on to new information; so, for example, Autism is a condition that affects many people is more likely to occur in a discussion of neurological conditions, while Many people suffer from autism would be more felicitous in a discussion of the people themselves. They’re truth-conditionally equivalent, but discourse-functionally distinct.

    Some aspect of this pattern might be resonating in the minds of people who subscribe to “person-first nomenclature.” Talking about “autistic people” in a sense presupposes the existence of the condition and moves on to the people who have it as “new information,” while “people with autism” casts “these are people” as given and “they have autism” as new.

  2. Marc Leavitt Says:

    Disregarding the semantics for the moment, pragmatically, it is possible to argue that whether the condition described by the adjective is innate, or truly an accident in the Aristotelean sense, has a major bearing on the argument. As far as we know, autism is a condition that a person is born with; disability, on the other hand, can be the result of an unfortunate accident, such as a car crash. In the former case, putting sensitivity to the side, it would be accurate to describe a person as an “autistic person,” with the inference that autism is only one of the many traits that make up the person, although unfortunately, and subjectively, it may have more weight than certain other characteristics. On the other hand, describing a person as disabled, unless the person is born that way, is an entirely different matter. In the real world, the politically correct form of description would seem to be “a person with autism,” or a “person with a disability.”

  3. Erin Says:

    I have observed this argument among diabetics–I mean, people with diabetes (shortened to PWDs in the blogosphere)–as well, being a member of that community. Of course also being a linguist, I am annoyed by the argument. Yes, I am other things besides diabetic, but anyone who would assume that is my essential characteristic from hearing I am “a diabetic” rather than “a person with diabetes” is probably not someone I want to spend much time talking to anyway.

  4. codeman38 Says:

    Marc Leavitt’s comment pretty much hits the nail on the head regarding the pragmatics of person-first construction– at least with respect to autism, anyway (which I have more than a bit of experience with as someone with an autistic spectrum disorder!).

    Many people on the autistic spectrum vehemently dislike the “person with autism” construction because it treats a pervasive part of their existence as if it were some sort of add-on feature that can be ignored. In fact, a comparison that’s often made by autistic bloggers is that it’s like saying “a person with femaleness” or “a person with whiteness”– we just don’t say that!

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