Writing Autistic – Words and Phrases You Need to Know

It occurs to me that many of you probably haven’t had much contact with the autistic community before this point. You might have already done in-depth research before reaching this point, or this blog might be your first port of call. In order to make things easy for you, I’ve decided to compile a list of words and phrases used within the autistic community, as well as within this blog.

Most of these words and phrases are for topics that I have already covered, or plan to cover in the future. This guide is meant as a quick way for you to understand autism-focused blogs during your research, as well as terms I might use on this blog.

Allistic: Someone who is not Autistic.

Neurotypical: Someone who has no intellectual disabilities, learning difficulties, developmental disorders, mental illness, etc.

Note on Allistic and Neurotypical: In some areas, the use of “neurotypical” is up for debate. The word arose from a need to refer to people without autism as something other than “normal”. It’s as important of a label when talking about autism as “straight” is when talking about sexuality. Some neurotypicals see this as an insult, though this mostly stems from them being annoyed at autistic people who are venting their frustrations, much in the same way that someone might say “white people are the worst” or “urgh, men are pigs”.

They’re not attacking every individual neurotypical personally (#NotAllNeurotypicals!) but they are using it as shorthand to refer to the ableist neurotypicals who do attack them, the ignorant neurotypicals who unintentionally hurt them or spread harmful misinformation, and the systems of oppression upheld by neurotypicals. Suffice it to say, I have little patience for neurotypicals who dislike being “labelled”. Really. I can’t possibly imagine what that must feel like. /sarcasm

Within the community, there are those who use “neurotypical” to mean “allistic”. The word originated in autism communities, and many people dislike the words “allism” and “autism” because “autism” comes from the root “auto”, meaning “self”, and is meant to describe “morbid self-absorption”. “Allism” comes from the opposite root.

To the first point, that “neurotypical” originated in autistic communities, the person who coined the phrase has backed the definition I have given above. It also just makes sense from the way the word is made up, and it’s important to have a word with that specific meaning in order to build solidarity between neurodivergent groups (see below for definition).

To the second point, about autism and allism as words, that ship has sailed. In fact, Asperger’s Syndrome was originally coined as an alternative diagnosis to get rid of the stigma of “autism” and we’ve reached a point where it’s agreed that, as much as it helped to broaden the criteria for autism, it fed into the idea of “good” and “bad” autism that persists today. As long as we’re stuck with autism, allism makes sense as a counter.

I will personally tend towards using allistic when talking about issues solely surrounding autism, especially in these blog posts. This is because someone with depression/an anxiety disorder/etc. may have a better understanding of some issues surrounding autism (for example, they may experience executive dysfunction as part of their condition) but they will never understand it to the same degree as an autistic person, and they may still perpetuate ableism against autistic people.

Neurodivergent: Someone who is not neurotypical, due to intellectual disabilities, learning difficulties, developmental disorders, mental illness, etc.

Neuroatypical: Someone who is not neurotypical, due to intellectual disabilities, learning difficulties, developmental disorders, mental illness, etc.

Neurotypical Passing: An autistic person who is indistinguishable from their allistic peers to a layperson. This usually requires a lot of energy and the need to be NT passing most likely contributes to the high instances of anxiety disorders, etc. among autistic people. For example, a large number of teenage girls are only diagnosed after being referred to mental health services for eating disorders.

NT: An abbreviation of neurotypical.

Neurotipic: An abbreviation of neurotypical.

Neurodiversity: A movement that believes that having diverse neurotypes is as essential to humanity as biodiversity is to nature. There is nothing inherently wrong with people with autism or ADHD, etc., we’re just outnumbered.

Asperger’s Syndrome: A diagnosis coined in the days when autism was still largely believed to have been caused by “refrigerator mothers” to encourage parents to accept a diagnosis for their child, without facing the stigma of having caused the condition. It was named for one of the first researchers to identify autism, Hans Asperger, though due to his working out of the University of Vienna during the rise of Nazi Germany, his work was lost to history for more than a few decades. Due to the fact that Asperger was very much aware that the children he worked with would be euthanised under the Nazi regime if he wasn’t careful, he strategically highlighted cases of extreme intelligence or children with extraordinary abilities. These factors have lead to Asperger’s Syndrome being seen as the socially-inept genius archetype, rather than the “true horror” of “real” autism.

Asperger’s Syndrome is no longer a diagnosis in DSM V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), which is currently used in the United States. Instead, people who would have been diagnosed with Asperger’s are now diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, which is graded in levels, though whether these levels are helpful in determining the level of services someone needs, or are just more detailed functioning labels (see below) is a question that is perhaps better asked of American autistics.

The ICD-10 (International Classification of Diseases) is currently used in many other countries (including the UK) and Asperger’s is still included as a diagnosis. It is currently being revised, however, into the ICD-11, which appears to be an online system which accepts contributions from around the world. This will probably lead to Asperger’s being absorbed by the Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis there as well.

Aspie: An abbreviation for someone with Asperger’s Syndrome. This originated from within the community and can often be preferred by aspies for its less pathologised-sounding nature.

PDD-NOS: Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified. The “not-autism” of autism diagnosis. This was also absorbed into Autism Spectrum Disorder in the DSM V.

ASD: Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Functioning Labels: This is when someone refers to an autistic person as being either “high” or “low” functioning.

There is debate around whether these labels are actually any good at describing autistic people. Autistic people themselves generally think not. Areas of ability and difficulty are so varied among autistic people, one label cannot adequately convey them. What usually ends up happening is that “low functioning” people are trotted out by allistic family members as a bogeyman trump-card to win any argument about autism. (”Family members shouldn’t talk over autistic people!” “You’re not like my child! They’re ~low functioning~! Only I can speak for them!”)

“High functioning” is also used to silence autistic people, usually by allistic family members telling them that they can’t ever truly understand their child. Apparently the chain of people who understand autism goes: high-functioning autistic < allistic family member < doctors/anti-vax pushers/that shady guy who sold me some poisonous herbs to cure my child < low-functioning autistics, if they could ever possibly communicate, but they can’t, and if they can then they’re clearly high functioning. /sarcasm

/sarcasm: A way to communicate sarcasm in text-based communication, as autistic people may struggle to identify it. Also, as an autistic person, my sarcasm can often be more subtle than that which NTs use, making it a useful identifier for them too.

Anti-vaxxers: People who believe that vaccinations cause autism. They don’t. The guy who said that they did turned out to be a fraud. They have conducted numerous studies which debunk his. They even removed the elements he said were harmful from most Western vaccines. They were preserving agents, not so important for those of us with fridges everywhere.

They also believe that the risk of deadly disease is better than risking autism, which no one who argues with them really addresses outside of the autistic community.

Vaccinate your damn kids, whether it might cause them autism or not. Autism is still preferable to death.

Cure Culture: The cultural belief that autistic people would be better off if they were “cured”, leading to a large majority of research money looking for cures and causes, rather than services. The search for a cure is unlikely to lead to results, and at this point is mostly concentrated around looking for genetic factors. The end goal of finding these genetic factors is a prenatal genetic test, so that parents can be given the option to abort their autistic child. This isn’t popular with autistic people, for reasons that should be obvious. Especially when the money being poured into looking for the genes behind autism could be better spent improving the lives of autistic people, removing any argument for the genetic test in the first place.

Ableism/Disableism: Ableism and disableism are the terms for discrimination against disabled people. “Ableism” is largely used in the United States, whereas “disableism” is often used in the UK.

Medical Model of Disability: The medical model of disability views disability as a problem with the disabled person to be fixed with a cure.

Social Model of Disability: The social model of disability views disability as a problem with society. If the world was built specifically for people in wheelchairs, for example, tall people might suddenly find themselves disabled. Why would doorways be built tall enough for them? Who are tall people to ask for special treatment? Do you know how much doorways cost?

Person First Language: Person first language would be saying “person with disability” or “person with autism”. This is popular within most American disability communities, as it doesn’t define the person by their disability. The two most notable exceptions to this are the Deaf and Autistic communities. These two communities subscribe to the social model of disability and see their disability as an integral part of their identity. The social model of disability originated in the UK, so most disabled people in the UK also reject person first language. I am Autistic and British, so I will not be using person first language.

IRL, it’s always polite to use the language the person you’re referring to prefers. If someone prefers “person with autism” or “autistic person” it’s not an allistic’s place to correct them. A fellow autistic person may ask them about their choice, but it is a personal decision and it is theirs to make.

A$: An abbreviation of the controversial charity Autism Speaks. More on them here.

ABA: Applied Behavioural Analysis. This is the only form of treatment/therapy that medical insurers have to provide in the United States. Because of this, many therapies for autistic people in the US call themselves ABA for insurance purposes even though they aren’t. True ABA has the same roots as gay conversion therapies and is largely considered abusive by the autistic community. More on it here.

Spoon Theory: Link to the full thing here. It’s basically the idea that everything in life, from showers to making food, costs “spoons”. Disabled people start the day with a limited number, and so must factor in things abled people would never think twice about, like showering, into their daily spoon allowance. When someone refers to being “low on spoons”, this is what they are referring to.

Stimming: Engaging in self-stimulatory behaviour. I mean, it’s basically fidgeting. It does the same thing, though stimming is more conspicuous, and is more necessary to an autistic person’s mental health. Stimming can improve concentration and prevent meltdowns (see below).

Stim Toys: Any object which is used for stimming. Some can bought from shops, such as chewable jewellery, while other people make do with DIY stim toys like glitter jars or a toy with soft fabric (I have a soft Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man on my backpack).

Special Interest: A topic which fascinates an autistic person, usually to the point of obsession. Many autistic adults pursue careers around their special interests, though not all special interests are long-lasting or life-long, with some only lasting a few weeks. They also aren’t always socially acceptable or pleasant. The horror game Five Nights at Freddy’s was my special interest for a few months and I had nightmares the entire time. I don’t even like horror games. I drew the line at Bioshock. That’s how much I don’t like horror games.

Speccing: Engaging in activities related to a special interest. (This isn’t in wide use, but has been catching on lately.)

Sensory Processing Disorder: A condition comorbid with autism. Can you feel your socks right now? I bet you couldn’t until I mentioned it. Our brain filters out tons of sensory information all of the time. For someone with SPD (Power Rangers to the rescue! I will not apologise for my echolalia – see below) their brain either focuses too much or too little. It can vary depending on the time of day, or which sense is being used, and it often varies from person to person.

Comorbid Condition: When a condition exists alongside another condition in a person.

Sensory Overload: You know in Man of Steel, where there’s that scene of a young Clark unable to control his super-hearing and he has to hide in the cupboard? It’s basically that.

Meltdown: A point at which an autistic person essentially experiences a system crash and the attempt to recover can be seen outwardly (excessive stimming, self-injurious behaviour, sudden crying, etc.). This is often caused by sensory overload.

Shutdown: A point at which an autistic person essentially experiences a system crash and the attempt to recover causes them to withdraw into themselves. This can often involve being non-verbal, unable to more, or unable to process sensory information around them. This is often caused by sensory overload.

Non-verbal: When an autistic person has no/limited ability to speak. Some autistic people are permanently non-verbal and others vary. Some will never have a non-verbal episode, and some will only have them every few years, or if they experience burnout.

Autistic Burnout: This is sometimes referred to as “autistic regression” but the autistic community tends to prefer “burnout”. It refers to an increase in meltdowns, non-verbal episodes, visible stimming, echolalia, executive dysfunction, and other autistic traits that many neurotypical passing individuals suppress. This usually follows a period of high stress in the autistic person’s life, when they have been unable to look after their needs. It can often resemble depression.

Echolalia: Using repeated phrases to communicate, often taken from TV, though it can also be an autistic person repeating a question back to answer it. This is sometimes mistaken as being meaningless. Just because you don’t understand it, doesn’t make it not communication. I don’t speak Mandarin. It doesn’t mean that those who do aren’t communicating when they use it.

Echopraxia: Using repeated body language or facial expressions to communicate. It’s essentially the body language equivalent of echolalia.

Specific Learning Difficulties: The term used in the UK for conditions which only affect a specific area of learning ability. A few are listed below but I only give a VERY brief overview of the main difficulty caused by each – you’ll have to research them individually to know more.

Dyslexia: A specific learning difficulty which affects the ability to read and write (usually a difficulty spelling).

Dyspraxia: A specific learning difficulty which affects fine and/or gross motor skills.

Dyscalculia: A specific learning difficulty which affects mathematic ability.

Dysgraphia: A specific learning difficulty which affects the ability to write.

ADHD/ADD: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder/Attention Deficit Disorder. Specific learning difficulties which affect the ability to concentrate.

A Note of my use of autistic vs. Autistic – I’ll admit, I’m often sporadic over whether I capitalise the A or not. I, personally, like it, so I will usually capitalise it when referring to myself. When referring to autistic people in general, I tend not to. Why? Who knows. Because different people have different opinions, mostly, and because there’s no real consensus on the capital A.

A Note on These Terms – Language evolves and changes. As of September 2015, these are the terms which are most commonly used within the community. I will probably update this post if anything drastic changes, and I will indicate the date of the change, but, seriously, potential readers from the future, pay attention to the changes in language. Especially if one of these terms falls out of use or is abused by allistics to the point of being considered offensive.

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  1. Hey. I’d just like to add to this by saying that I’m in the UK and have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Condition within the last three weeks (and four days, to be exact). I know it’s a relatively knew thing but it’s basically the same thing as ASD, but under the view that autism is less of a disorder (something wrong, something to be fixed) and more just a difference in the way someone’s brain is wired. I don’t know if this information is at all important to you or this article, but I thought I’d comment just in case. 🙂

    1. Yeah, that’s actually really handy to know. I’m in the UK and I was diagnosed last year, but they were still using “Asperger’s” then. I wonder if the change is wide-spread, or if it’s local to you. I’m struggling to find anything on it, besides its general (but unexplained) use in various academic papers or grey literature. (This is where I get annoyed that the autistic and medical communities are so fragmented.)

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