Three Harmful Words We Should Stop Using About Individuals with Autism

Many of us are in roles of providing caregiving, daily living support, community assistance, on-the-job training, or teaching in educational settings to individuals with autism or disabilities. I found three words that are harmful that we should stop using. We often use these words when describing the individual to other people involved, such as, when talking about their challenges, or making decisions about how to include an individual with autism.

We don’t intend harm, but when we use these words they have negative connotations and we represent the individual in less than desired ways. I believe these words have subtle power that may cause additional obstacles to their inclusion and acceptance. The words are:

1). behavior,

2). manipulation, and

3). OCD (obsessive compulsive disorders).

Behavior – I suggest that we replace the word ‘behavior’ with ‘response’. The individual is responding and communicating at the same time. Although both words are similar, ‘behavior’ implies the individual is the source of their problems. Rather ‘response’ is a softer word that suggests there is something she is trying to communicate about herself that is important. She needs to know and feel we hear her and acknowledge her responses.

Manipulate -We should stop using the word ‘manipulate’ because it suggests the individual is intentionally out to cause trouble or turmoil. We should start seeing the individual’s action as a way for her to ‘to cope’ with something that may be causing a personal struggle within. We could choose to see her seeking some input or having a voice about a personal need or desire. This is known as personal determination. With this perspective, we become more open to identify hidden fears or anxiety that is at the root of ‘manipulation’.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) –We should stop  using ‘OCD’ when explaining to someone about the individual’s response (behavior). ‘OCD’ presents a  condescending meaning when describing an applicant to a new manager in a work setting for example. It implies the individual is the cause of his problem and diagnoses. Instead we should use words that show dignity and respect for the individual such as, “She is  ‘precise’ or ‘detailed’ about her work.”

In summary, when the individual becomes frustrated or angry unexpectedly, her response may appear outlandish and disruptive to us. Her actions may be in response to a situation that didn’t unfold and one she was counting on to bring her pleasure or other higher emotions: contentment, joy involvement in the activity, or spending time with someone she relied upon in certain settings. As a result, when she tried to cope with the negative unexpected change, such as an unfamiliar rude person in the setting or anxiety on the job or a community setting, it may have brought about feelings of losing control, helplessness, or fear of uncertainty. Many individuals with autism have these emotional reactions to negative abrupt change.

In contrast, when the individual feels understood and heard by people in the setting, this changes everything for the positive. Thus, we have changed the setting into an opportunity for positive emotional responses and enhanced adaptation. This is called empathy.

Dr. Jackie Marquette

Consultant, Speaker, & Author

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