I have recently run across a few people who have used the term “autistic” as a slur against others. It’s being used to accuse people of not being self-aware, of being “socially stupid,” and/or of showing a lack of empathy. I have see free markets referred to as “autistic,” and there is even a movement in economics called post-autistic economics.
I don’t want to get into a discussion of economics as I don’t want to get into those kinds of “political” issues that have nothing to do with autism per se. I simply want to point out that it seems fairly easy for many to use “autistic” in a way that is clearly intended to be derogatory. (The Atlantic reports a way in which autistic people may in fact be better at thinking like economists, or at least more rationally about money.)
Calling someone “autistic” who isn’t is much like how adolescent males use the word “fag” to question the masculinity of other males their age. It’s used in a derogatory fashion and is intended to create offense. But of course offense can only be taken if the person agrees that the term being used on them means they are “less than” what they are. In the past, the closest thing would be to call someone “retarded,” only that merely suggested something along the lines of “you’re stupid,” while calling someone “autistic” is more specific, denoting not just general stupidity, but a specific kind.
The problem is that when you use a word like “autistic” in a derogatory fashion, that denotes how you feel about such people. It says that you think autistic people are less than you, that their value can be expressed in the fact that you can insult people with the term (which doesn’t speak well for those who can be insulted by it, either). How you think about us affects the way you treat us. If you think less of us, you will treat us as less. So yes, it does matter what words you use, how you use them, how you think about us.
Now, this literally has nothing whatsoever to do with the issue of free speech. There is a difference between “you shouldn’t say that” and “you shouldn’t be allowed to say that.” If you use autistic in a derogatory fashion, “free speech” is no argument for its use; I can use my free speech to point out that you’re a rude jerk for using the word that way.
Nor is this a matter of my being “overly sensitive.” I find it strange that people think that objecting to bullying and abuse is being “overly sensitive,” and that defending yourself is somehow a show of weakness. Neither is true. You are being overly sensitive if you object to someone who, out of honest curiosity, asks you something about being autistic, but not if you object to their referring to someone who isn’t autistic as being autistic simply to belittle them.
In the end, there are real, negative consequences to using “autistic” in a derogatory way. It belittles us, treats us as inferior, and that treatment gets expressed in actions just as much as words. When those actions are expressed as explicit prejudice against autistic people and the firing of autistic workers, then it’s affecting lives in ways that really matter.