Most people strive to be respectful when discussing someone with different abilities. This often leads to questions about what language is appropriate—for example, is it better to say “autistic person” or “person with autism”?
Another term you may have heard and have questions about is “autist”. Where does this word come from, who uses it, and is it offensive? Let’s discuss.
What does “autist” mean?
“Autist”, the noun form of “autistic”, is another word for a person with autism. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, it first appeared in print in 1922, though there’s no information on where or in what context.
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This was 11 years after the term “autism” was coined by German psychologist Eugen Bleuler. He described autism as a symptom of schizophrenia (a concept he also coined), in which the patient avoids reality by withdrawing into his/her own inner world. “Autism” would be reused by Leo Kanner in 1943.
Kanner, a child psychologist at John Hopkins University, observed multiple young children with unusual development. Symptoms included…
- Language difficulties, such as echolalia and mixing up pronouns
- Insistence on routines
- Fascination with objects, but lack of interest in other humans
- Repetitive behaviors like jumping and spinning
- Lack of eye contact
- Social anxiety and difficulty with communication
At the time, a child with this behavior might have been labeled psychotic or “feebleminded”. But Kanner believed that these kids could be distinguished from schizophrenic patients because their symptoms were present from early childhood. This led him to assume that the symptoms were caused by intrinsic qualities of the child’s brain, not by environment or upbringing. He thought the health condition he studied was something entirely new to psychiatry, saying it was characterized by “extreme autism”—meaning a child wouldn’t interact with the outside world.
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Over time, “autism” became the accepted medical term for this diagnosis, and patients were sometimes called “autists”. Kanner’s research formed the basis for our modern understanding of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Today, “autist” is rarely used by researchers, doctors, or autistic people themselves—but it can be found in edgy online spaces.
Is “autists” an offensive term?
Strangely enough, you might see this relatively scarce term most often in Wall Street Bets, a forum for discussing stock trading on social media site Reddit. Wall Street Bets experienced a flash of fame in early 2021 when users coordinated to undermine Wall Street bigwigs. This brought some attention to the community’s very…unique culture, particularly its frequent use of words like “autists”.
Wall Street Bets’ definition of “autists” seems flattering on the surface. A “basic guide” to the forum’s culture says “Use autistic to describe someone that actually does due diligence and knows what they are doing”. Members also use “autists” as a blanket term for themselves and all fellow members. The guide doesn’t explain how this terminology developed, but it’s probably rooted in the stereotype that every person with autism is a high-functioning, obsessive expert on certain topics, or even a savant-level genius.
Users of Wall Street Bets aspire to make serious money, so it makes sense that they want to be “autistic” about stocks. Calling themselves “autists” might appear to be a weird pseudo-compliment, but it’s derived from oversimplified stereotypes. Plus, the forum’s use of “retard” doesn’t indicate a respectful attitude toward people with disabilities or mental conditions.
“Retarded” started as a medical term for children who were severely impaired, but over time it became a slur for people with a developmental disorder or a synonym for “dumb”. Today, it’s considered unacceptable language and may be referred to as “the r-word”. Wall Street Bets and similar forums definitely leverage this offensive history when saying it—the basic guide says the r-word “means your [expletive] stupid and don’t know what the [expletive] you’re doing”.
Wall Street Bets is just one of many communities on Reddit, 4chan, and other sites that reject “political correctness” and frequently reference autism spectrum disorder. Just look, for example, at the “autistic screeching” meme. Indeed, “autists” may be their expression of choice because it’s outdated at best and offensive at worst.
Even without the strange Internet context, “autist” just doesn’t sound very…nice. I realize that’s personal opinion, but we rarely refer to people as nouns when it comes to race, sexuality, ability, and other such identifiers. We’re likely to cringe when someone says “the Blacks” or “the gays” instead of “Black people” or “gay people”. Why? Because it can come across as dehumanizing and othering.
“Autists” may not be offensive in and of itself. Still, because o f the connotation surrounding it and its infrequent use among the autism community, there are better words to use.
What should you call a person on the spectrum?
This is a somewhat intense debate, and everyone has their own opinions. Most autistic people prefer the phrasing “autistic person/people” because they see autism as an integral part of their identity. Others prefer “people with autism/ASD” or “people who have autism/ASD” because they want to emphasize that the person is more than his/her condition. But those who dislike “person with autism” believe that it frames autism as a disease that can be separated from the human.
If you’re talking about an individual, consider asking which one he/she favors. If you’re talking about people with autism in general, it’s probably okay to use either or both. Though everyone has strong preferences, neither is technically wrong. “On the spectrum/autism spectrum” is also acceptable.
Some people with autism may call themselves and others an “autie” or an “aspie”, referring to asperger’s syndrome. Asperger’s syndrome was a diagnosis given to children with difficulties in social interaction and communication, but without the cognitive and language impairments sometimes found in other children with ASD. Autism, Rett’s syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, and asperger’s fell under the category of pervasive developmental disorders (PDDs) in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Fourth Edition (DSM-4). The DSM provides definitions of disorders and diagnosis guidelines for psychiatry in the United States. The DSM was updated in 2013 and became DSM-5, and all the PDDs were folded into the label “autism spectrum disorder”.
Although children are not diagnosed with asperger’s anymore, some people still identify with the term and like the nickname “aspie”. However, if you don’t have autism yourself, “autie” or “aspie” are probably ones you should avoid.
What should you not call someone on the spectrum?
Here are a few phrases that should really be avoided if you don’t want to cause offense:
“Suffers from autism”
Sure, autism can make aspects of life more difficult, but it doesn’t cause bodily harm. It’s another way of experiencing the world, and people with autism don’t “suffer” from it the way someone with cancer might.
“Retarded”, “mentally handicapped”, or “feebleminded”
These expressions are considered derogatory. Try “person with autism”, “person with a developmental disorder”, “person with an intellectual disability”, or whatever best describes the individual.
“Disease” or “illness”
Autism is called a disorder or a condition, not a disease.
When it comes to autism, it can be hard to know what’s the right or wrong thing to say. If your child or loved one has ASD, you naturally want to be kind and respectful.
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“Autist” is one name that isn’t totally inappropriate, but may not be the best choice, either. It’s okay if someone likes the term “autist”, but it’s also okay if someone finds it insensitive or hurtful. Because it’s often used in poor taste in modern Internet culture, I would avoid it unless someone with autism specifically tells you it’s his/her preferred term.
In moments when you’re unsure, always strive to be polite, keep the individual’s humanity in mind, respect his/her personal choices, and be open to correction.
Evans, How autism became autism, The radical transformation of a central concept of child development in Britain https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3757918/
“AUTISTIC DISTURBANCES OF AFFECTIVE CONTACT,” 1943 https://blogs.uoregon.edu/autismhistoryproject/topics/autistic-disturbances-of-affective-contact-1943/