Semantics

by NMSilber

There are those who believe that assigning labels like “high functioning” or “low functioning”  to individuals on the autism spectrum is no more problematic than assigning them to, say, a microwave.  I am not one of them.   I have been lucky enough (not really) to discuss this subject with others in the past who have very kindly (patronizingly) taken time to explain (lecture) me in great deal why exactly I am thinking about this all wrong.  While the reasons that they have given for why I am misunderstanding (disagreeing in much too logical a way)  have been varied,  I tend to hear one comment again and again.  Apparently, I am “worrying too much about semantics.”   To those who have made this observation, I am deeply touched that you are so concerned about my mental health.  Your generous offer to think for me is appreciated, as thinking does take up a lot of my time, but I actually rather enjoy it.   Perhaps it’s time we discuss “semantics” a little further.

As everyone (who has ever actually looked up the word) knows, “semantics” has more than one meaning.  According to Merriam-Webster, one definition is “the language used … to achieve a desired effect on an audience…”   Let’s consider the words “high” and “low.”  If there were just some way to get an idea of what effect those words might have on audience.  Maybe if we knew what other words were considered to be similar? I have an idea!  Let’s break out the thesaurus!  (I just love the thesaurus.) According to Thesaurus.com the following words are synonyms for the word “high” : elevated, lofty, tremendous, uplifted, and upraised.  In contrast, the following words are synonymous with the word “low”: below, beneath, inferior, lesser, and small. High=elevated and uplifted.  Low=beneath and inferior.  Uh oh.  Does anyone else think that maybe the effect of those words could actually be, well, really bad?

They are just words though right?  How could using a simple term negatively impact on a person’s life?   Well, the answer is a whole lot when the words are “inferior” and “beneath.”  Calling me a pessimist, but I think that implying, that someone is inferior, or better yet actually labeling them as such, does not exactly set them up for success.   In fact, it might even open the door for a lot of people, especially those who don’t get into thinking all that much, to do things like devalue people.  And then all kinds of bad stuff happens, abuse, neglect, limited opportunities,  lack of access to education and employment.  I could go on all night.

Generally these terms are tossed around by people who apparently have never taken a moment to consider what it might feel like to be so labeled (people who really do lack empathy.)  I have seen some people on the spectrum themselves use these labels on occasion though.  For some reason, it seems that they are always those who consider themselves of the more “elevated” and “uplifted” variety.  I wonder why.  Well, I have news for you folks, the term “high functioning” is as patronizing as “low functioning” is insulting and both set Autistic people up to be misunderstood and under or inappropriately supported.  I am “worried about semantics” alright and for good reason.

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