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Too often, well-meaning journalists get it wrong when they write about autism. It’s not so much the content of their stories that misses the mark as the language they use to describe autism.

It can be easy to unintentionally offend – or worse, misrepresent – the autism community they are meant to describe.

Why does it matter?

Stories that get it wrong can contribute to how others perceive those with autism – and even perpetuate potentially dangerous stereotypes. So Autism Canada has recently developed a guide to help journalists navigate the language of autism in a balanced and accurate manner.

The guide also contains a few important facts that everyone should know about autism and will help you separate fact from fiction.

Autism is not an ‘enemy’ or a ‘gift.’

Autism or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex neurobiological condition that impacts brain development and is characterized by communication problems, difficulty with typical social interactions, a tendency to repeat specific patterns of behaviour and a markedly restricted repertoire of activity and interests.

While it may be more dramatic for a news story to call for a “war on autism,” this portrays autism as an enemy to be defeated, not a condition that someone lives with daily that may confer identity and that may include benefits, too.

At the same time, living with autism can be a daily struggle for many individuals and their families. So media depictions of autism as a special “gift” are not balanced depictions either.

In other words, autism is often associated with positive and negative attributes for those affected by it, and the families that support them. It is complex and multi-faceted. So don’t buy into depictions of autism that too often oversimplify the lived experience.

Living with autism is not hopeless.

A great many more supports are available for individuals with autism and their families than in the past. It’s very rare where nothing can be done to improve the quality of life and functional capacity of an autistic person. You should reject depictions that imply nothing can be done for individuals with autism, or depict the outlook or potential of an autistic life as bleak.

There are evidence-based supports and options available that can improve the health and independence of those with autism.

Autism also intersects with many other complicated social issues such as health and well-being, education and employment, acceptance and identity. Be sure to separate what is autism and what is often thrust upon those with autism, but could be changed through social, economic and community supports, or even a change in outlook.

Avoid terms that are demeaning.

Terms such as ‘slow,’ ‘simple,’ ‘special’ or ‘abnormal’ are inaccurate and demeaning. Autistic individuals are different. Their minds work differently. When talking about someone with autism, you can acknowledge or describe the challenges they face without defining them as lacking or deviating from the norm.

Acknowledging the person is paramount.

When you talk about someone with autism, keep in mind that you are discussing an individual and not just a neurobiological condition. You can be respectful of the individual by using such terms as “has autism,” “is autistic” or “is on the autism spectrum.” Avoid saying “suffers from autism” because this assumes that autism is a negative part of a person’s life.

Looks can be deceiving.

Individuals who have autism don’t look a certain way. Describing someone by saying that “they don’t look like they have autism” can leave the impression that they don’t deserve the supports they need. Instead, you can learn a lot by asking individuals with autism how autism affects them and their families, and what type of supports or accommodations they require.

Reflecting on autism in a more nuanced manner using these basic pointers can help you avoid simplistic depictions and understand the true, lived experiences of those on the autism spectrum and those who support them.

Laurie Mawlam has been executive director of Autism Canada since 2006. In 2007, she founded the Canada Autism Spectrum Disorder Alliance (CASDA) with other key autism leaders. She sits as past-chair and treasurer. She has participated in Senate and House of Commons committee hearings, has sat on numerous working groups to lead us to a National Autism Strategy and has been an ASD champion since one of her three sons was diagnosed with autism in July 2000.

Laurie is a Troy Media contributor. Why aren’t you?

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