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How language can affect autistic individuals: recommendations from a neurodivergent BCBA

Language is a powerful mechanism that we use when understanding the world around us. The words that we use in everyday conversations have an impact on individuals, and some terms can negatively impact others. 

There are certain word and language choices that you can consider using when speaking about autism. This blog includes key considerations from a neurodivergent Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) on the Kinark Autism Services team that you can use in your everyday language and vocabulary. 

What is ableist language and how does it affect individuals in the autism community? 

Ableism is a hierarchy of privilege and the belief that certain groups or individuals are lesser to others. This system of discrimination often influences how people talk about and perceive autism through the use of ableist language. 

One of the concerns with ableist language is that many people don’t realize they are using it. Often times, this terminology that is a part of our everyday language that is rooted in ableism. Below are some terms that are old terms that you should consider avoiding and the suggested replacement. Please note that these are just some examples and that there are many ableist terms that we are continuing to learn about. 

Amanda Modrovsky, M.ADS, BCBA 
Clinical Supervisor,
Kinark Autism Services 

What is some of the old versus new terminology?  

Previously Used Term New Recommended Term 
Person with Autism Autistic person* 
Low vs. high functioning Describe specific strength and needs 
Challenging behaviour, disruptive behaviour, problem behaviour Specific description of the behaviour 
Special needs Description of the specific need 
Treatment Support services and/or educational strategies 
*Always ask the person what they prefer. 

How you can avoid using ableist language 

1. Understand the terminology you are using and why it is ableist. We don’t know what we don’t know, and learning the terminology will help you identify what words are rooted in ableism. Check out these YouTube links about or by autistic creators.  

2. Assess the language we use

Do a self-assessment about the language you use and modify as needed. You can use our chart above as some examples of common language in everyday situations. 

3. Ask Autistics how they feel about the term.   

  • The best way to know if a term is perceived as ableist is to ask. Remember everyone has their own individual thoughts and preferences. Asking someone how they feel and their comfort level is showing respect to the individual. 
  • Read message boards or watch YouTube videos of Autistic creators. Get into their world and listen to the language they use and what they say about ableism and ableist language. 

If you hear someone using ableist language or speaking derogatorily, don’t be afraid to speak up. Everyone has the right to feel safe and using language that makes someone feel inferior can lead to anxiety and depression.  

You can read Kinark’s guiding language principles on our website here

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