Will ‘Autistic’ Replace the R-Word?

This is a post in the weekly Autism Hopes series by Lisa Quinones-Fontanez, a mom who blogs over at AutismWonderland.

Whenever I hear anyone use the r-word, I cringe. I can feel my whole body tense up, my nostrils flare and my right eyebrow raise. If we are friends, I will point blank tell you to not use that word. Because anyone who knows me, knows my feelings about the r-word and they apologize for using it. (Once I even corrected my boss. My boss!) If we are not friends sometimes I will let it slide but all my respect for you (if there is any) is lost.

I’ve heard the r-word used in the workplace and in the playground. I’ve seen it all over social media – Twitter and Facebook – used by friends, strangers and celebrities. It’s never okay when anyone uses – in anger, frustration or to insult. I have no problem calling out celebrities who’ve used the r-word. And Ellen has written extensively on the subject and her youtube video Would You Call My Child A Retard? is incredibly moving.

I just finished The Dirty Girls Social Club (I read it about 10 years ago and decided to reread it). In 300 pages the word ‘retard’ appears four times – 3 times as an insult and once in its ‘proper’ context. Each time it appeared, the words on the page became blurred and the only word I could see was ‘retard’ glaring at me. I wasn’t crazy about the book the first time I read it, reading it a second time, I liked it even less.

I’m getting to my point…I promise.

Last summer you may recall when rapper 50 Cent insulted someone on Twitter  by writing ‘i just saw your picture fool you look autistic.’ Autism mom and advocate Holly Robinson Peete wrote an open letter questioning him on what autism looks like. And parents on Twitter were posting pics with the hashtag #WhatAutismLooksLike.

The photo I tweeted to 50 Cent – July 2012

A few weeks ago, two other rappers – Drake and J.Cole – were called out for their use of both the r-word and ‘autistic’ in the new song “Jodeci Freestyle.”  And for those who haven’t heard the story, this is the lyric that offended the special needs community: I’m artistic, you ni**as is autistic, retarded. 

Anna Kennedy and the Anti-Bullying Alliance started an online petition asking Drake and J.Cole to apologize and change the lyrics. And once again, Holly Robinson Peete came out to express her concern and disappointment. 4,500 petition signatures and many tweets and blog posts later – J.Cole posted a sincere public apology and Drake agreed to cut the lyric.

Is this a trend? Will the r-word phase out and ‘autistic’ creep in? Am I being over sensitive or playing word police?

The r-word has become so misused and its definition so skewed by our society that the term Mental Retardation was changed to Intellectual Disability. In twenty years time, will we propose changing the term of autism?

As a writer, I don’t want to censor anyone’s artistic license. But as a  mother raising a son with autism – I want these insults to stop. In every single form. In speech. In writing. In comedy. IT HAS TO STOP. Because as writers, as performers, as human beings, as “superior cognitive thinkers” we should be capable of using another word. We should know that words are powerful and they need to be used responsibly. We need to think before we speak, tweet and write.

When I think of how hard my son has worked to do all the things that come so easily for other kids like point his finger, wave, jump or speak. I am so proud of him and I cherish every single milestone, they are often the things that keep me going. It’s incredibly painful when people associate autism with stupidity.

When people use the r-word or autistic as an insult it perpetuates this idea that individuals with special needs are dumb, worthless and ugly. If you’ve met anyone with autism or an intellectual disability you know that they are hard working individuals. They are kind and genuine. When you use the r-word or autistic  as an insult you are robbing men, women and children with special needs of their dignity and pride.

My son has autism and he is so much smarter than any IQ test can reveal. He is a sweet boy with a good heart. And he deserves better than to be the punchline of a joke or the definition of an insult. All of our kids do.

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  1. [...] it’s freedom of speech” argument. Sadly, it’s no longer just that word; blogger Lisa Quinones-Fontanez and actress Holly Robinson Peete have both wondered whether “autistic” might even [...]