Not ‘impaired’ and not ‘disordered’.

Taking issue with the negative labels, which are often associated with autism.

There are some labels, which are still being used to reference autistic individuals that we must ALL stand up and take issue with. I hear them used regularly from other education professionals, see them on medical forms and even in the titles of current books ‘Impairment’, ‘Disorder’, ‘Low functioning’, ‘Non verbal’ – these terms are negative, misguiding, unhelpful and wrong…


Triad of Impairment


One of the first things we will encounter when reading about autism is ‘The Triad of Impairment.’


The ‘Triad’ is a helpful tool in that it highlights difficulties, which are common to those with a diagnosis of autism, but I have an issue with the word ‘impairment’.


The dictionary definition of impairment is,


‘The result of being impaired; a deterioration or weakening; a disability or handicap; an inefficient part or factor.’


‘The Triad of Differences’ would be less harsh. Differences may lead to difficulties, but with the right structures and supports differences can also lead to great discoveries.


Many of the difficulties represented in the triad can also be positive character traits. The word ‘impairment’ does not suggest this.


ASD – (Autism Spectrum Disorder)


Autism Spectrum acknowledges that individuals with an autism diagnosis vary greatly (as can individuals without an autism diagnosis). Autistic people can be the great movers, thinkers, creators, innovators. They can hold down the most amazing jobs, be the most wonderful life partners and parents. Autistic people can also struggle with communication difficulties, social difficulties or be tormented with severe sensory issues, resulting in all sorts of challenges.


The ‘D’ for ‘Disorder’ is completely unacceptable. I cringe when I see it written on paper or hear it said because autistic people are not ‘disordered’. Perhaps they have an associated condition, but ‘disordered’ is a Dark Age term. The ‘D’ will stop being used in future. In time the autistic community will speak up, be heard and people will unanimously agree. If you see an individual referred to as being ASD you can make change happen faster by questioning the ‘D’. The more we ALL question the quicker we will see change in attitudes. The closer we will be to creating acceptance.


Low Functioning or High Functioning


A person diagnosed with autism, may be described as being ‘high functioning’ or ‘low functioning’. What a confusing, intolerable way to describe a person. ‘Functioning’ can be used to describe an electrical device. Your T.V. could be ‘functioning’. Would we describe a cat that has broken its leg or suffered a stroke as ‘low functioning’? No – we would be respectful of their individuality and describe their specific condition.


I’ve been teaching autistic children for over a decade. They do require a different approach, but I would never ever agree to hearing ANY of them described in terms of ‘functioning’. They are wonderful children, who continually cause me to reassess, to pause in wonder at their individual brilliance. They make me think and rethink. I teach in a school for children with ‘severe learning difficulties’. If there is ‘High Functioning’ then the children I teach would probably represent the opposite end. NONE of them are ‘low functioning’. We must abolish this negative terminology. Autistic people may be gifted, they may have learning difficulties, they may have sensory issues or experience different perceptions.  If you wish to add detail to the diagnosis mention these things. Question those who use ‘functioning’ to describe a person.


Non Verbal


Unless there is a known physical condition affecting someone’s speech they are NOT non verbal. An autistic person may not speak YET. They may (in some cases) never speak, but they do have the potential to speak. If they speak through an Assistive Communication Device such as an iPad then they are communicating. They are speaking with assistance. Never ever allow someone to describe an autistic child as ‘non verbal’. The term removes all hope and assumes a future, which is never set in stone.


A child who does not speak can still listen intently.


The label ‘non verbal’ is a write off term. If you hear an autistic person described as ‘non verbal’ question why. Do not accept age cut off dates because there are no age cut offs. Autistic people are individual. They can start to speak later. An approach that failed early on may be tweaked, tried by someone different and lead to success. I’ve seen speech develop late too many times to ever stop trying.


Even if an autistic person never speaks they must know that the possibility is always there, that the people around them are still hopeful. Talk about what they CAN do. Maybe they can make sounds, maybe they can echo or copy rhythms, press a switch, look at their reflection, react or interact. All of these things are communication. They may not be speaking, but they are communicating. Even if they are never able to find their physical voice, they can be given access to assistive communication – Apps, Eye Gaze and switches. Non verbal is a non hopeful term. Question it.


We must ALL speak up!


Let us eradicate this negative terminology and remove some of the obstacles autistic people encounter.


Do not isolate or accept negative assumptions based on outdated training and literature.


If someone uses negative terms to describe an autistic person we must question them.


Remove the write off terms and remove the stigma.


We must build people up, believe in them and highlight their individual possibilities.



“Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.”

(Wayne Dyer)







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