Is it OK to “suffer from autism”?

Are we wasting time on semantics debates in the autism community?

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I’ve just finished plowing through a bunch of articles on the use of certain terms in the autism community that seem to set off flame wars on a regular basis. For instance, the person-first language debate between “person with autism” vs. “autistic person.” Parents often prefer the former and autistic people (obviously those retaining the power of speech) prefer the latter. Parents are concerned that if people refer to their kids as “being” autistic rather than “having” it, their identity as people with dignity will be infringed upon. Autistic people feel that autism is not a disease, but a much-needed identity in a world that has socially denied them a clear one.

But this article is not about that.

Autistic people suffer both directly and indirectly from the consequences of autism.

Recently, an autistic friend of mine wrote an article that mentioned the phrase “suffers from autism” as being insulting. Is it controversial? Yes. After all, it made me begin to think unceasingly (as I do) about autism and suffering. While I understand that much of the bullshit autistic people and their loved ones have to endure is due to living in a world that is uninformed, unsympathetic, and unaccommodating, a lot of it for some if us is a direct result of the condition itself. Autistic people do suffer; both directly and indirectly from the consequences of autism.

Some examples from my own experience might clarify this. A great deal of my personal suffering is because of the way the world misunderstands autistic people. Especially before I finally diagnosed myself at almost 40 year old. I was isolated as a child because teachers don’t have time to help out a kid who’s not fitting in. I was bullied because pre-Columbine, there was not much traction for anti-bullying programs or activism. Such that I only complained to a few adults before stopping altogether. I was always lectured by these adults on being sensitive to the struggles of those who were harassing me – “Her parents are going through a divorce.” – “He has a tough home life.” – “That’s just how his parents raised him.” My struggle was never the priority because adults simply didn’t want to put forth the effort to address a sticky, but far more serious than they suspected, “childhood problem.” I suppose they thought it would be over in a short number of years, but adults on the spectrum know that bullying only escalates after the school years are over and the stakes are much higher.

Clearly these difficulties are due to a lack of understanding and accommodation – including my own gross misdiagnosis for so many decades.

We mustn’t allow arguments over words and internecine debates to obscure the most urgent problems we face.

But we have to remember that autism is not just a mental condition – it affects many other systems of the body and this seems to be a little known fact in the wider world. As a young adult my mind was screaming to be released from the shallow neurotypical facade I had forced myself to produce due to the constant prodding from influences both personal and cultural. This led to increased gastro-intestinal issues which resulted in my being in extreme pain because I was digesting my own esophagus with severe acid reflux.

I suffered.

Years after this problem was resolved, I began to feel a little twinge of sharp pain in the end of my pinkie finger. I tried to ignore it but the pain kept increasing over time and eventually I was having nerve paroxysms so severe that the upper right half of my body was useless, the tendons in my neck and shoulder froze, and still no one could identify what the problem was – when they believed me about the pain at all, of course. Finally, through a charity organization (no health care) I was able to see a hand specialist.

I care less about the semantics and culturally-loaded terms used to describe ourselves and more about discussing the degree of suffering itself.

I had an exceedingly rare type of neuroma made up of an overgrowth of sensory nerves in my extremities. They tend to occur at the base of the skull, on the tympanic membrane, and under finger and toenails – anywhere there is a high concentration of sensory nerves. I don’t need to tell you that there is a direct connection to neuropathy and conditions of the sensory nerves in autistic people. This type of tumor is so rare that there has been little research on it and therefore it is not known if they occur more in autistic individuals, but several other members of my family on the spectrum have had rare nerve tumors in other parts of their bodies that caused extreme pain and required surgeries.

I can’t go into detail here about the excruciating five year process I went through, all the while unable to work or bathe regularly or function, in order to get these tumors removed. In addition to the other consequences of being mentally misdiagnosed. My fingernail had to be excised several times and the microsurgery performed to remove the overgrown nerve cluster required weeks of recovery every time. I’ve never found another medical description that emphasizes the quality of the pain of a condition like this one does. Most request the amputation of their fingertips and require psychological consultations for the mental effects of chronic pain. As did I.

 

So again, I really suffered. Clearly I have no problem with this phrase in reference to myself.

But is it OK for non-autistic people to refer to someone as “suffering from autism”? Perhaps not, but I’m a bit jaded after all this time. I care less about the semantics and culturally-loaded terms used to describe ourselves and more about discussing the degree of suffering itself.

One day we will learn to ride the delicate line between pathologizing and romanticizing autistic people.

I know from having met and loved many other autistic people throughout my life that they have some of the most hair-raising personal stories of any group of people. It’s worth noting that most of the popular books written by autistic adults are by those who have seemingly been more successful and supported than the majority. Far be it from me to get bogged down in the Comparative Suffering Olympics that stymie special interest groups from time to time – See white feminists vs. feminists of color. However, the autistics who are the most marginalized, impoverished, and challenged are rarely the ones with the support network and means to get their stories written and published and promoted. 

I don’t want to continue to gloss over the horrible experiences of autistic people. I want us to collect and share our stories with one another and the wider world.

Therefore, we are having our tales of injustice and medical malpractice buried along with our unique perspectives. I know as a woman and sexual assault victim (another loaded word I have no problem using), that those who want to maintain the status quo and not go to the trouble of understanding us or helping change the world to accommodate and protect us, want us to just shut up about our suffering. In fact, the demonization of the word “victim” is an example of that. When we tell our stories we are accused of “being victims” in order to defame us as being “too sensitive.” Assholes don’t want to acknowledge that broken institutions and predators cause great suffering for people of different demographics and circumstances. They definitely don’t want you going into the details of your ordeal to bring a personal, human face to certain societal issues.

This is an invitation to silence that must shouted over.

I don’t want to continue to gloss over the horrible experiences of autistic people. I want us to collect and share our stories with one another and the wider world. The disabled and neurodiverse are the most impoverished demographic in America – indeed in the world. We are the most sexually assaulted and exploited.  We are still fighting for jobs, reasonable medical treatments, and accommodations. We are dealing with stigma and fear. We are even gunned down by police regardless of race. Semantics can go on the back burner as far as I’m concerned.

One day we will learn to ride the delicate line between pathologizing and romanticizing autistic people, but we mustn’t allow arguments over words and internecine debates to obscure the most urgent problems we face.