You've probably heard of the uproar over the use of the word "retard" in the new Ben Stiller movie, Tropic Thunder. It has practically whitewashed the fact that Robert Downey Jr.'s character performs in blackface. No small feat.
As a writer, and the mother of three girls with autism, I choose my words carefully when writing about people with disabilities. Not because I have a need to be politically correct. I can be as vulgar and irreverent as Ben Stiller or even the Farrelly brothers (hang on, I have to kneel for a moment to thank God for the Farrelly brothers.) Inside this middle aged woman lives the sense of humor of a 14 year old boy. My Sirius XM radio alternates between channel 75 (Siriusly Sinatra) and Howard 100, where the Howard Stern show airs all day long.
I try to avoid using the term autistic to describe a person - except in cases where brevity is a requirement, like a headline. I dislike calling my own kids autistic. It says so much, yet tells so little about them. They have autism. But autism is not who they are.
Is the person with an IQ of 70 (the psychiatric cut off point for "mental retardation") damaged compared to his friend with an IQ of 71? I don't think so. If you want to grab one more book for end of summer reading, buy Lottery from Patricia Wood. It's about a man with a borderline IQ who wins $12,000,000 in the Lottery. We should all be as smart as main character Perry L. Crandall. OK, back on track. I'm home with the three girls and it's hard to keep my focus. I think I just put laundry in the dishwasher.
I've noticed that the nomenclature rules seem to change by disease and diagnosis. For instance, children with cancer are never called cancerous. Yet children with diabetes are diabetic. People with Down syndrome are not "Downers" (pun fully intended.) There's no rhyme or reason why a gnarled grandmother is called arthritic and yet her husband has Alzheimers. We aren't calling him Alzheimerian... yet. Speaking of which...
My friend John Robison, (Augusten Burrough's big brother and author of the memoir Look Me In The Eye) calls himself "Aspergian," preferring that name to the snake-like sound of "Aspie." Since he has Asperger's, I think he should be allowed to call himself whatever he wants. It's when others decide the word is a pejorative and use it with malice that the word morphs into something sinister.
But what about when it's a state that uses the term? Ohio still has "MRDD" which is the Department of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disability Services. Connecticut has "DDS" which is the Department of Developmental Disability Services. What does your state call its department? Surely Ohio intends no malice, and yet it appears to be painfully out of date, out of touch with the times. Or is it? Tropic Thunder may make Ohio au courant after all.