The New R-word

Retard. Retarded.

There. The R-word spelled out-and now we are all clear what I’m talking about.

I am not proud to say I have used the R-word. It’s a word that was used around me frequently in my youth. I may have used it to describe an impossible situation or the way I felt during a difficult exam that I wasn’t prepared for.

I didn’t grow up around people with special needs. I didn’t know any one who was mentally retarded. I guess that’s why it was easy to say the word and use it in my vocabulary. I didn’t associate it with any one person or use it as a descriptor towards anyone. Yes, I used it, and rarely felt bad about saying it. Well, until I had a child with special needs; a child with a diagnosis, a disorder. Suddenly the R-word felt horrible and awful and wrong.

I have curbed my use of the R-word as I also realized how hurtful a word sounds even when it’s not aimed at a person. Even when it’s describing a moronic situation. It’s just a bad word, a word I wish we could erase from our lexicon. That may not be a far-fetched wish, there are many groups fighting for mindfulness of how offensive and degrading this word is; and more importantly to urge people to stop saying it. I applaud these groups and encourage you to Google the “The R-Word” or “Project R”and watch the various videos. They are moving and inspiring and will hopefully make you mindful if you use the R-word.

Why am I talking about the R-word in a blog about autism? It appears we have a new R-word. My daughter tells me, every few days, people she knows, young people, smart, civic-minded teenagers say it right in front of her. It’s usually said in the context when a neurotypical individual is acting weird, or perhaps not understanding a subject in school.

“What is he autistic or something?”

Yes, the new R-word is Autistic. And each time my daughter hears this, I believe it makes her question the humanity of her peers. And each time I have to endure another story, I wonder too.

I can play devils advocate: perhaps having a word to replace ‘retarded’ feels better to some people. But in my opinion, replacing one word for an intellectual disability with one for a developmental disability doesn’t make it any better. It feels to me like it makes it worse.

Last week I heard a famous radio personality (in widespread syndication) say the exact same thing “What, is he Autistic?” I almost lost control of the car. I didn’t hear the whole topic they were discussing but it was clear her intent. It was meant to make this “fill in the blank” person sound moronic. It was meant as the ultimate insult. And it was heard by millions. I cannot tell you how terribly sad this makes me, on so many levels. Has our society not learned from the R-word? Have we not branched out to understand disabilities, and embraced them? Have we not become more socially sensitive? Has awareness done nothing to take away ugly words?

I don’t know how to stop this or alter its course, but I’m starting here. I refuse to give up on everyone.  I know there will be people who will continue to use words that reflect a disability in a derogatory way. I’m not talking to them, but appealing to the brave; like my daughter. My teenager whom I am encouraging  to adamantly tell people how offensive it is. And its okay to tell them her brother has autism. I guarantee you someone the offender knows is on the spectrum too. If 1 in 68 are currently affected, they know someone. If enough teenagers start to pair an ill-intended word with an actual person they know, or know of, perhaps that will be the wheels of change. Perhaps it will stop them from perpetuating ‘Autism’ as the new R-word.

My goal of awareness is in this vein of change. We have to go through some ugly phases before change can happen. But why not extinguish this new R-word now? Let’s not let it go on for decades until it becomes so natural to use it, you don’t think of it as offensive.

If you hear someone using this as a negative term, please correct them. Please tell them how disrespectful and cruel it is. ‘Retarded’ and ‘Autistic’ are disorders, not put downs. If they need words to insult someone, I have a few they can start with: fool, idiot, blockhead, dunce, ignoramus, imbecile, cretin, dullard, simpleton and my new favorite, clod. And if they need more check a thesaurus.

I grew up saying a word I wasn’t truly aware could be so powerful and how it could hurt so profoundly. Let’s do what we can to extinguish the dreaded R-word and not let there be a new one.

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