Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Better Left Unsaid

Working at a college it’s not uncommon for me to hear someone say, “That’s retarded” as I walk across campus. It’s become a familiar phrase in American speech. Calling someone else retarded is commonplace with most of our younger generations. People spit it out without thinking about the negative connotations associated with it. It has even been used in the past to clinically describe people with mental illness. However, when it’s used to describe a child with an actual disability it is found to be offensive – as it should be in either case.

So let’s begin with a look at the true meaning of the word. When I hear someone say, “That’s retarded” I usually reply, “Its slow?” This is because I know that, according to the Encarta New World Dictionary, “retard” means:

1.      slow something down: to slow or delay the progress of something

2.      slowing of tempo: in music, a slowing down of a previously quick tempo

But, the final entry says:

3.      offensive term: an offensive term that deliberately insults somebody with a learning disability or somebody regarded as unintelligent

Let’s face it, most autistic children are extremely intelligent, but have a disability that limits the way they can express that intelligence. Konner has an IQ that would make most of his peers look silly. That’s not bragging (okay, maybe a little) it’s just a fact, and can be said of most people on the spectrum. The problem is getting him to sit still long enough to do the work to prove that aptitude. You usually can’t have him tell you the answers because he is over stimulated or he just won’t talk to you.

There’s good news and bad news about this social taboo. The good news is that most autistic kids are either oblivious or immune to the negative association with the word, or any other “teasing” that may come from young kids. The bad news is that adults are not immune to this and parents are the first to get upset with the situation (rightfully so). The sad part is when the adults are the ones actually using the word and don’t even realize they are hurting anyone’s feelings. In fact, there are times when it is used because it has been accepted for so long to actually describe a disability.

I’m going to share a post that appeared on the Parents of Autism page on facebook. I don’t think that the person who posted it would mind, but I’m going to withhold the name just in case. I think it sums up how most of us feel. She wrote:

“After 22 years, you would think I would be numb enough to ignore ignorant people, but I was ready to whoop this woman in [store] parking lot just two months ago. I held it in for the simple fact that my son didn’t even realize that she had made fun and laughed at him. If he had, he would have went off on her himself…I just prayed real hard, called my Mom and am trying to let it go.”

The other issue that pops up is when children do this “teasing” and it turns into bullying. They use the word to harass children on the spectrum. They also tend to torment these kids because they feel like they are easy targets. What really needs to happen is that the peers of autistic children embrace their peers and help them. As said many times, these children need help socially from their peers. If these kids would stand up against bullies we would see less of it.

This rings true for any child that is different, not just autistic kids. Any disability or difference in the majority can draw criticism and teasing from a bully. A birth defect, birth mark, unforeseen disfiguration, or speech disorder can draw unwanted attention from a tormenter.

To my knowledge no one has called Konner retarded yet. If it does happen and I hear it I’m sure that it will hurt and anger me. I’m not sure how I’ll react, but I would like to think that I will try to explain his disorder so they can understand what he is going through.

One thing that we have tried to do for the past three years is address his disorder to his classmates each year. We read them stories so they can relate and explain that, for the most part, he is just like them, but some things are harder for him to deal with then a “neuro-typical” child. This has seemed to help. Most of his classmates tend to embrace him and help him along. I’m not saying this is standard, but it has worked for us.

As for using the “r word”, we just need to stand up against it. That doesn’t mean that we need to yell and scream when we hear someone use it and threaten bodily harm. We need to try and educate the masses on what autism means, and that retarded and retard are negative names that only show ignorance on their part.

There are pages and groups on facebook that are designed to raise awareness about the use of the derogatory term. I highly recommend checking out these sites and subscribing to them. Just type in “r word” and you will find them.

Disclaimer: I am in no way claiming to be an expert. I’m just a father who is trying to learn as much about Autism as I can to help my child. I hope that you all can learn from me, and I from you. I ask anyone who has questions or comments about something I have written, or autism, please contact me at I will try to answer questions as I have time, and if I find it interesting enough I may touch on it in my column.

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