If You Say This and You’re Not on the Autism Spectrum, Stop

Stop road traffic sign over blue skySomehow, in recent times, the term “aspie” has jumped tracks from a being an insider’s term of endearment to an all-purpose adjective used to describe quirky or geeky aspects of one’s own or another individual’s personality: “I couldn’t wait to get home and read more of that astrophysics book. How aspie is that?”

Is there anything wrong with that? Well, yes. And no.

If you really are on the autism spectrum—at the “high” end, where the diagnosis is Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) or high-functioning autism (HFA)—you might find usages of this nature confusing. They might even feel derogatory.

Before I go further, let me say I am not a button-pushing, “that’s offensive” kind of person. I’m not on a rant here. But there is room for sensitization with regard to the throwing around of the term “aspie” that would serve us all well. My observations come from working with many individuals who are on the spectrum. This is important to them.

First of all, there is no such thing as an AS/HFA personality. There are as many personalities among people on the spectrum as there are among those who are not on the spectrum. Just as not all neurotypical individuals watch reality TV; just as not all feel magnanimously comfortable in social situations; just as there are millions of individual interests represented, so, too, is the variety among those on the spectrum.

The aspects that distinguish a person on the spectrum from one who is not are related to structural differences in the brain. For people on the spectrum, these differences make living in the neurotypical world a minute-by-minute challenge. Figuring out subtexts and metamessages in conversations and other forms of communication is exhausting, and always bears the risk of failure. Sharing a three-dimensional, visual way of thinking with those whose thought patterns are more linear is exhausting. Understanding social and work expectations that are not explicit is exhausting.

When a person with Asperger’s/high-functioning autism calls things aspie, you can bet he or she knows exactly what it means. But that’s not an invitation to co-opt (and quite possibly misuse) the term.

Sometimes, due to misreading context and expectations, people on the spectrum make what is viewed as a social mistake. Is that an “aspie” thing?

Sometimes, a person on the spectrum has a deep interest in a topic that is not generally understood or even valued by other people. Is that an “aspie” thing?

Who among us has not been in a social situation in which we did or said something we later regretted? Who among us is without an interest, habit, or hobby that might not be considered mainstream?

If you have friends on the spectrum and they use “aspie” in reference to themselves, be careful. When a person with Asperger’s/high-functioning autism calls things aspie, you can bet he or she knows exactly what it means. But that’s not an invitation to co-opt (and quite possibly misuse) the term.

Do you know what it means to the person with AS/HFA who uses it to describe himself or herself? If you don’t, ask. That’s what I meant above when I suggested that use of the term isn’t entirely bad. It can open up a conversation that could be instructive to everyone involved.

I would bet that once you hear a person on the spectrum give his or her definition of the term “aspie,” you won’t be throwing it around casually anymore. You might even feel an urge to help other neurotypical individuals who use it to understand what it means to those for whom it matters most.

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  • 8 comments
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  • Cain

    Cain

    June 10th, 2015 at 11:53 AM

    I swear I have never heard anyone say anything like this at all. Nerdy? Yes I have heard that. or geeky. But never aspie.

  • Jeff

    Jeff

    June 10th, 2015 at 1:21 PM

    I’ve never heard or used the term, “aspie”, but understand from my own research what it means to be on the spectrum. I began the research when I connected the behaviors of someone I was dating, with those I heard on a television broadcast. She and I never spoke of the disease, but frequently of the symptoms I experienced and witnessed with her. She could not hear my complaints objectively.

  • Sarah Swenson, MA, LMHC

    Sarah Swenson, MA, LMHC

    June 10th, 2015 at 3:53 PM

    Hello, Cain – I am happy to hear that this term is new to you. We hear it frequently here in Seattle’s IT corridor. That’s what inspired me to write this piece. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

  • Jackie

    Jackie

    June 11th, 2015 at 9:21 AM

    My pet hate? ‘A bit OCD’. Usually just a humble brag that your house is really clean, and not too respectful of those who live with what can be a crippling condition.

  • Nolan

    Nolan

    June 11th, 2015 at 1:12 PM

    Seriously it just shows the ignorance of those people when they spout out offensive words like that. So for me it is sometimes nice to have someone show me their true colors because that can really affirm for me that this isn’t someone that I need to be a part of my life!

  • Ava

    Ava

    June 11th, 2015 at 5:17 PM

    When did we ever decide that it was ok to talk about other people and their conditions in this way?

  • oliver

    oliver

    June 12th, 2015 at 8:00 AM

    Great advice though on starting this conversation with others that you may automatically have a fear of chatting with about this

  • Caterina

    Caterina

    June 15th, 2015 at 10:40 AM

    Shouldn’t matter whether you are on the spectrum or not
    still feels like the wrong term to use

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