Lately I’ve heard a lot of autistics say they ‘don’t want to be labelled’, that they dislike labels. A lot of people seem to see a label as being the same as an insult, stereotype, or name.
A label is a simple description, like a label on a can or food jar (eg Baked Beans), or a physical diagnosis (eg heart disease), or a neurological diagnosis (eg Aspergers Syndrome). It only acquires meanings (negative or positive) in the mind of the speaker.
An insult of course is just plain negative. A label can be turned into an insult, eg when people turn ‘Aspergers’ into ‘ass-burgers’; or it can just be negative from the start, such as ‘weirdo’. Just about every Aspergers or HFA adult has heard these insults, many a time. Unfortunately.
And insults, in turn, can lead to stereotypes, where a ‘label’ is presumed to mean certain characteristics, usually negative, and insults such as ‘geeky’ or ‘weird’ are presumed to be true descriptions.
A name, on the other hand, can be either derogatory or flattering. “She’s a real go-getter”, is vastly different from “she’s a bitch”. “He’s a computer expert” is not the same as “he’s a total geek”. Thus a name can be either a compliment or an insult, and can either build someone up, or tear them down; make them feel good about themselves, or diminish their self-esteem.
And all of these are different again from an identity, which can also be positive or negative. Once, being female, non-white, non-heterosexual, etc, usually meant a negative identity. Various social movements turned that around, and now many are proudly gay, black, a woman, etc. Room has been created (often forcibly) for it to become a positive identity.
We on the spectrum have not yet established that positive identity, we have not yet created the room for it to happen, except in our own small enclaves – and sometimes not even there. And the rest of the time, we are abused, bullied, rejected, ridiculed, patronised, laughed at, yelled at, told how stupid and useless and hopeless we are, etc etc - and meanwhile the images of autism that are ‘out there’ are totally negative, and difficult to identify with - is it any wonder so many want to reject the label of autism altogether?
Yet a label and the new identity that comes with it can also mean a burden lifted, being freed from a tangle of low self-esteem and feelings of failure. It was certainly so for me when I discovered Aspergers Syndrome. For the first time, I had an explanation for what I had seen as a deficiency in myself. To find that there were others like me, that I wasn’t a ‘lemon’ on the human production line, was a revelation and a liberation. Yes, I had to battle through a lot of negativity in the material written about autism and Aspergers, but I began to see that though I lacked certain skills, I had other attributes which were actually plusses. My new friends, also on the spectrum, have helped me to see myself very differently. I have learnt to love my autism.
So let’s embrace our ‘label’ or identity as Autistics, because only then can we turn it around to become a positive thing, firstly amongst ourselves, then in the world at large. Because I want an end to the crippling self-hatred, low self-esteem and difficult lives of ALL my fellow autistics - to lift us out of the old ways of being autistic in a world that doesn’t understand us or want us. No minority group has ever changed the public image of their identity or ‘label’ by rejecting it, hiding away, or claiming to be ‘free spirits’. It’s time to change, to love our autism, to embrace a positive autistic identity. For all our sakes.