That Autistic Kid: The Importance of People First Language

Occasionally I watch TV of questionable value. It happens when too much PBS or Ken Burn’s documentaries have me fearing I’ve prematurely aged by thirty years. While watching The Voice the other night, I heard a contestant make the statement, “I work with autistic kids.”

Hmmm, do you?

Then you really should know better than to refer to your students as “autistic kids.”  Respecting the different abilities of others requires the recognition that, first and foremost, they are human beings. Special needs or diagnosis are secondary to that fact. People first language is a big step towards creating a culture where everyone is accepted.

Critics claim over-sensitivity or the dangers of rigid political correctness that can cause everyone to be tentative but consider all of the personality traits or mental faculties that you have but wouldn’t want to be your defining quality.

List 10 characteristics about yourself that have a negative connotation. I’ll start:

  • Irrational
  • Indecisive
  • Argumentative
  • Critical

Well, you get the idea…

By making a list of “negative characteristics”, I’m not implying that special needs are a bad thing. I don’t think that and would like to believe that the rest of the world does not either, but the reality is much different.  The goal of this post is to work to change those pervasive ideas.

Go back to your list. Even if you weren’t able to come up with 10 things, if you listed more than one, it is a clear example of the layers that we carry. We are many things, so characterizing a person by a single element, like a special need, is narrow-minded, However, while putting these labels on people is negligent, each person should be defined. By their preferences, morals, opinions, views – defined not judged. We are who we are because of these things and should accept that reality.

A sad, secondary commentary on people first language is when it’s disregarded, because someone sees the need as a means of special treatment. A trendy diagnosis – like autism – can be used to create relevancy. Differences should be celebrated, but these people are doing themselves and their children a disservice in promoting the need. They are discriminating against their child as a multi-faceted person. By doing so, they are giving permission to other people to do the same. Very quickly “my amazing, special autistic child” becomes “the arm-flapping kid” or “that girls who counts all the time.” Children, especially, should be given the opportunity to define their own self beyond their special need.

For more information about the use of people-first language, check out the National Inclusion Project.

It’s Unlikely You’ll Ride in a Spaceship Today.

Earlier this week, a problem in one student’s math workbook asked:

What is the possibility that you will ride in a spaceship today?

The answer choices were listed:

a) impossible

b) certain

c) unlikely

d) likely

I re-read the question and answers twice. It read to me like a question of opinion not a question of fact usually found in a math journal. Maybe it was possible that the individual answers were going to be used in a lesson on surveys or graphing. Nope. There was a “correct” answer as listed in the almighty answer key.

Impossible. The “correct” answer was impossible.

My own idea leaned heavily towards unlikely, I am not willing to rule out that I will ride in a spaceship today. And I’m not even a sci-fi nerd! I once asked a friend to pre-read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and remove any reference to personal spacecraft and replace it with ‘car’. I struggle in finding interest in fictional space travel, but I am enamored by the true feats of our space program, begged to go to space camp as a child, and can watch the NASA channel for hours.

2012 marked an incredible year in science, where feats once deemed ‘impossible’ then relegated to ‘unlikely’ were realized and accomplished. Felix Baumgartner’s skydive or the fact that we are exploring Mars again. Each year developments once considered far-fetched dreams of unrealistic idealists become reality, fact, the new truth.

We see this progressive thinking in many aspects of our culture, but in education it seems that we are stuck in the dangerous school of group thought. There are right and wrong answers. Answers that are black and white, figuratively and literally (an entirely separate, but equally important, discussion). Understanding there are certain truths that are considered infallible like 2 plus 2 equaling 4, there is little room for independent thought in the way our students arrive at these certainties. More importantly, we teach our students that there is an almighty ‘they’ that determines their rightness or wrongness and in order to progress it’s important to adhere to those predetermined paths.

The idea that there are things in our world that are considered impossible achievements severely stunts the growth of our nation. The limitations that are placed on thought starting at a young age means we raise generations taught to think inside the box. That term ‘outside the box’ was simply created to give people the perception that they are on the fringe with their independent thought, little do they know ‘the box’ is actually a box within a box within another box and so on.

The best part about education is that it seems to draw in the dreamers and the innovators. There are many ways that teachers and administration are working to fight back against creating the status quo, but they run into the inevitable challenges of money, time, and cohesive effort by boards and governments. When it comes down to it, it’s not the education system that is at fault, it’s yours. (Yours in the societal sense, of course.) It’s the distorted value system that has developed in the last 237 years.

This is not simply another of my diatribes were I scale the crumbling sides of my sarcastic soapbox to tell you about everything the world is doing wrong. Well, technically it is, but I also have a plan. It’s complicated, takes effort, and is probably more a result of my tree hugging youth than my career in education, but it is the direct result of not relying on the answer key.