Using the Term “On the Spectrum”

A few years ago, our culture collectively stopped using the word “retarded” as an ableist slur, but lately, the phrase “on the spectrum” has caught on as common slang to describe someone as socially inept. It’s even made it to the Urban Dictionary:

On the spectrum

A phrase used to describe a person with social tics and/or awkwardness usually associated with autism or Asperger’s Syndrome.

“Sheldon Cooper is such a funny character… he’s definitely on the spectrum, though.”

Since this is Autism Awareness Month, it’s worth learning the actual definition of autism. Here are the abbreviated diagnostic criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder as defined in the DSM-5:

A. Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts, as manifested by the following:

  1. Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity,
  2. Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction, and
  3. Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships.

B. Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities, as manifested by at least two of the following:

  1. Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech.
  2. Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns of verbal or nonverbal behavior.
  3. Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus.
  4. Hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment.

To be fair, there are people who are critical of the DSM definition. The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network prefers to define autism as a “neurological variation” characterized by “different sensory experiences,” “non-standard ways of learning and approaching problem solving,” and “deeply focused thinking and passionate interests in specific subjects.”

However we choose to define autism, we have to be careful how we use the term. From TV shows like The Big Bang Theory to movies like 21 Jump Street, socially awkward characters are being labeled as autistic, and that’s not a healthy trend. By using autism to describe people who have trouble socializing, communicating, or empathizing, we insult people who fit the actual diagnosis, and we spread misinformation about autism in general.

We can’t let “on the spectrum” become a cheap pop-culture reference, or worse, the next ableist slur.


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