One of the biggest leaps forward for the gay rights movement was the development of the word “gay.”
Prior to the word gay, the only word to describe gay people was “homosexual.” Homosexual was a medical diagnosis (until 1987). The word was a combination of the words “homo” – often used as a slur for gay people – and “sexual” – which meant you couldn’t say the word without saying the word “sexual” and bring to mind all the images associated with that word. Imagine trying to argue that a medical diagnosis for perverted sexuality was a positive identity.
“Gay” brought to mind different images. Gay was a word for being happy or carefree. The word “gay” applied to gay people whether or not you were happy. I know gay people who are absolutely morose or depressed, but the word “gay” still applies to them, with all of its positive associations. Even though the original definition of the word gay (“happy”) does not apply to all gay people, it is much easier to argue that “gay” is a positive identity, than a medical diagnosis for perverse sexuality.
Which brings us to Autism.
Right now, the only word to describe neuroatypical people is “autistic.” Autistic is a medical diagnosis. The full word is “autism disorder” which implies that this is a medical problem that needs to be “cured.” The only other word to describe autism is “Asperger syndrome” which literally contains the word “ass” at the front and again ends with a diagnostic word – “syndrome” – which implies aspie behaviors are just a symptom people experience that can be cured, not a full identity. Imagine trying to argue that a medical diagnosis for a mental disorder is a positive identity.
Yet, this is exactly what the neurodiversity movement is doing. The neurodiversity movement believes that the different ways people perceive and experience the word are not good or bad “disorders,” but simply natural variations that are all valid. Yet, the language they use is still grounded in the assumptions of disorder.
If we want neuroatypical people to be accepted, we need a positive word for autism – like “gay” was for “homosexual” – such that neurotypical people who think through branding and words can accept the identity.
This word does not have to be literally accurate or true. Once, I described this problem to a group of autistic people I was speaking with and proposed the word “bright” as a word for a positive identity. Many said they didn’t feel like this word described them or they identified with it. Yet, that’s not the point. Many people attracted to the same sex would not describe themselves as “happy” or “carefree” all the time either. The word isn’t for them, but the people they are trying to reach.
This could be extended to all aspects of branding. The gay rights movement did not just stop at the word “gay.” They also used the rainbow as their symbol. Again, most people have very positive associations with the rainbow. Rainbows are beautiful. They are diverse and contain many different colors. They emerge after storms as a sign the bad weather has passed. Who doesn’t like rainbows?
Autism has symbols too, but they have been defined and chosen by those with the “disorder” belief system. For example, many “disorder” groups use the puzzle piece as a symbol for autism. No autistic person I know identifies with this symbol. Puzzles are hard, complex, and difficult to figure out. Most people find them frustrating. This symbol presents autistics as a “problem” that needs to be “solved.” Who wants to be seen as a problem?
Part of the challenge here is that this is not how most autistic people think. We think logically and literally. This branding challenge requires autistics to convey their reality in a way that is technically false, but produces the correct reaction in neurotypicals. This is not lying. It’s branding. We have to convey a true reality through symbols and story.
There is a moment in the film The Last Unicorn (1982), that illustrates this perfectly. In the film, a unicorn is captured by a carnival. One of the carnival workers creates a false horn and places it on the unicorn’s head. The unicorn becomes confused and asks why the worker is doing this when she has a real horn already. The carnival worker replies that her horn is too magical, so magical in fact, that the regular peasants cannot see her real form. She has to create a fake horn so that the peasants can see that she is a unicorn.
Neuroatypicals are in a similar position. Our way of seeing the world is so unique that most neurotypicals cannot see it. They just become confused and think they are staring at a puzzle they have to solve. If given a symbol – a false representation of the real thing – they could understand the simulacra of our experience, since the real is too magical for them to perceive.
What should this name be? I don’t know yet. The word “gay” was not chosen by one person or even a group of people but emerged naturally. There might be another word that emerges for neuroatypicals. Yet, neuroatypicals tend to be very deliberate thoughtful people. I’m sure if we begin discussing the question and thinking in these terms of branding, symbols, and linguistic association, we can eventually arrive at a better name and set of symbols for ourselves than the dominant culture has in their muggle attempts to puzzle over us.
What do you think it should be?
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