Can “Neutral” Autism Terminology Fit in Scientific Research?

January 16, 2023

Sometimes Certain Terms Are Accurate Clinical Descriptors

A commentary titled “A full semantic toolbox is essential for autism research and practice to thrive” was recently published in Autism Research. Written by four mothers of individuals on the spectrum, the commentary takes on the controversial topic of “neutral” autism terminology that many in the neurodiversity movement favor. Recent articles written from the neurodiverse perspective suggest avoiding or replacing terms such as “disorder,” “deficit,” “risk,” “symptoms,” “challenging/problem behavior,” “comorbid,” and “prevention” when writing about autism. The neurodiverse community considers these terms “ableist,” even though the context in which those terms are used is not always considered. The commentary’s authors acknowledge that some scientific words may provoke feelings of social stigmatization for individuals in the neurodiversity movement. However, they believe those concerned should counter and address that stigma but should not eliminate scientifically accurate terminology while doing so. The authors also point out that the words targeted for elimination most often apply to individuals severely impacted by autism who are traditionally the most underserved despite having the most needs. Additionally, the authors state that censorship of certain terms exerts a chilling effect on research and clinical practice. They fear this chilling effect will again impact individuals and families that experience autism as a life-limiting condition versus a divergence or identity. The authors sum up the controversy by stating, “There does not need to be a battle between the two viewpoints around autism vocabulary; there is room across the spectrum to acknowledge that autism can be a state of being for some, an impairing condition for others and somewhere in between for many. Restricting terms used to describe autism will not change the nature of a person’s autism nor will it eliminate the impairments and symptoms experienced because of an autism diagnosis. It will not result in clinical benefit for some while reducing any services for anyone else.” They conclude by urging the autism community to ask families and individuals which terms they prefer to describe themselves and to accept the broad use of scientific terms in scientific research and studies. Ultimately, the authors believe that the push for neutral language is problematic since it robs the scientific community’s ability to describe the harsh realities people with autism face daily, particularly those with profound autism. In the end, they do not believe that anyone or any group should have the power to limit language that excludes the “observable realities of autism.” 

Original Commentary

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