You've probably heard the controversy over the nation's Number One movie this past weekend that uses the R word in an ATTEMPT to send up actors who take roles playing disabled persons because they are "Oscar bait." Timothy Shriver of Special Olympics was on Good Morning America Monday decrying the movie and saying it's time to stop having fun with mental retardation, whatever the larger purpose may be.
No one wants to be accused of not "getting" the joke, but I have to say I agree with Shriver on this one. The N word is no longer fair game for white people, no matter their motive for using it, and people like Bill Cosby have tried to stamp out its use as a hip self-reference among young blacks as well. If for no other reason than that we want to model tolerance and inclusiveness for our kids without leaving any shades of gray, I'm with Bill and Timothy. There are lots of funny things in this world; let's leave other people's stereotyped differences out of it.
Which reminds me about the discussion over the use of the word autism. When I first started writing my column for United Press International, I got mail from readers who were trying to educate me on this point. You don't want to confuse the disability -- or different ability, or however one may choose to describe it -- with the person. That makes perfect sense to me, and (I hope) it's been a long time since I said someone was "autistic" (I sense someone googling "Olmsted and autistic" right this very minute). It's even easier to fall into its use as a preceding adjective -- an "autistic person" -- instead of keeping the order and priority straight -- a PERSON "with autism" or "who has autism."
I've also seen the point made that given the depth of the autism crisis -- you know, the epidemic that the CDC says it's not sure about, the full-court press to exonerate vaccines and mercury once and for all as the rate keeps skyrocketing -- it's more important to encourage awareness and investigation than to make too much over how it is used in a sentence. There's one way to employ the word that I really can't stand, however -- when people with autism are referred to as "autistics." How is that not a corollary of "retards"?
An example from Art Allen's book Vaccine: on page 283 he notes that "Leo Kanner wrote that the parents of autistics were generally 'mechanistic. …'" It's p-Art and parcel of Art's contempt for anyone concerned about vaccines and autism; you know you're in unfriendly territory when the book describes Bernie Rimland as "the original bitter parent" and titles one chapter "People Who Prefer Whooping Cough."
But the issue gets complicated. I see there is a site called autistics.org -- The Real Voice of Autism, which describes itself as "a project by volunteers, most of them autistic, to create a global database of information and services for persons with autism." I'm not going to get into an argument if people with autism choose to call themselves autistics, but I can't help but say I wish they would rethink the matter.
Overall, I'm not in favor of turning a condition or a description of a human being into a noun. And here's the best argument of all: In my Webster's, at least, there is no such use of the word. "Autistics" simply do not exist. So if for no other reason that it's not good English, let's say good-bye to the A word.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.