“Moms living with autism share their stories!” the headline proclaims. I know what it means. I know what it always means. And I know it will provoke some degree of wrath in me, but I click it anyway, because I’m testing my assumption, and because if I don’t keep up my frustration level, I’ll have nothing to blog about.
As usual, “moms living with autism” means “moms of autistic children.” “Autism families” means “families with autistic children.” “Autistic parents” means “parents of autistic children.” “The autism community” means “the parents-of-autistic-children community.” This is problematic on a couple of levels. First, obviously, because it excludes actual autistic people from consideration. The only reason people can say “autistic parents” in the confident understanding that others will know what they mean is because it is near-universally taken for granted that an autistic person cannot be a parent. The exclusion of autistic people from “the autism community” presumes that autistic people cannot be adults or agents of their own lives.
Secondly, the “living with autism” phrasing not only denies autistic people as the subject, it denies them even the status of object. It was the pro-cure movement, after all, which convinced writers and the politically correct that adjectives are insults, but phrases and clauses are sensitive terminology. The straightforward “autistic people” was banished in favor of the clunky “people with autism” or “people who have autism.” It became very important to emphasize that autism was not the autistic person’s primary or sole defining quality; it was, if anything, merely an afterthought. Certainly it was something that could, and should, be removed without affecting one’s fundamental personhood.
So if the purpose of relegating autism to prepositional phrase is to place the person first, why is it so common to drop the person from the sentence altogether? When “moms living with children with autism” is shortened to “moms living with autism,” note who gets dropped. The autistic person, instead of being elevated to a person who happens to have autism, is lowered to merely a personification of an abstract noun. An abstract noun which, according to Autism Speaks (not “People with Autism Speak”) is a child-stealing monster.
This is consistent with the portrayal of autistic people as vacant, their bodies merely shells in which the demon Autism resides. Autism is ugly, we are told, and a kidnapper, and legitimate grounds for murder. Clearly, we can see that, rather than putting the person first, as the convention purports to do, using “autism” exclusively as an abstract noun eliminates the autistic person from the sentence altogether, rendered not only invisible but nonexistent, our real selves “stolen” or “kidnapped” by this demonic abstraction.
I’m not saying anything new here, of course. I never am. All I can do is point out that this is the sort of thing we can easily challenge: autism is not a thing unto itself. One cannot have a jar of autism. The abstract noun exists only in the context of the people it describes. “Autism” can modify us as adjective or phrase or clause, but we are the integral part of the sentence.