Words matter, especially at the front of a lecture hall Why April is Autism Acceptance Month

Words matter, especially at the front of a lecture hall

“Words matter.” That was the theme of a recent symposium on Diversity and Inclusion, here at Leiden University. How seemingly casual language can sustain or emphasize exclusion of groups that are marginalized within society.

That's what Professor Wayne Modest discussed as the Director of the Dutch National Museum of World Cultures. Already by the 1960s, author James Baldwin was very clear on how language can lead to exclusion, or for that matter, feelings of superiority or inferiority, and how “imprecise words” can create a reality that one believes to be true.

Educating the next generation

It is a long road to learn and understand the power of the words we choose, the way we phrase our messages. This is especially important for those teaching, for all of us at the front of a lecture hall, educating the next generation. In fact, we should become aware and challenge the reality that we think is there, behind those words, especially when we are teaching others.

I had my own moment of truth some years ago when I gave my annual lecture on autism in the second year compulsory bachelor course “Developmental Psychopathology”. In the first half of the lecture, I explained the criteria from the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for psychiatry (DSM-5) for making an official diagnosis of autism. In that context, I explained how autism was commonly portrayed in psychiatry textbooks.

Respect for autism

Yet I personally had a different perspective on autism, which I planned to discuss in the second half of the lecture, after the break. That is, instead of perceiving autism as a “failure”, or merely as a set of deficits in certain “others”, which needed to be cured, I wanted to discuss how to look at autism as a form of diversity. This view was inspired by claims from within the autism community, and by their international call to celebrate April as what was then called Autism Awareness month (now changed to Autism Acceptance Month). In my presentation, I wanted to create awareness and respect for autism as a form of neurodiversity.

But before I had the opportunity to discuss this alternative perspective on autism, a student approached me during the break to inform me that the student seated next to her had left. That particular student – who had autism - didn’t like the way I was presenting autism in my lecture. The mistake I had made was right there in my face. But this incident prompted two realizations, which I would incorporate into all my future lectures.

First, the people that I am talking about are also part of my audience. This is so obvious that of course I had realized it beforehand. But nonetheless, I had failed to address this properly, or this autistic student would not have walked out of my lecture. Having grown up myself with a mother who struggled with depression, I remember how I once froze as a student in a workgroup on children of parents with a psychiatric diagnosis. That whole workgroup was essentially about me! What was worse, I had never even realized that I, too, could be a subject for a psychological study. I now had to digest all that on the spot, and hear how others were talking about me as a member of that group. Needless to say, I didn’t say one single word in that whole workgroup.

Second, when addressing any topic in child psychiatry, I should first and foremost show respect towards the people in my audience that may identify with the group or classification that is the topic of the lecture. Those students should be my focus of attention, and my lecture should welcome them and their specific profile or characteristics, but also explicitly appreciate the diversity within the community.

Underscore strengths, in addition to challenges

Since then, I have radically changed my lecture on autism. I now start by showing photographs of some powerful, successful, and important people – like Elon Musk, Greta Thunberg, Albert Einstein and more – and ask my students “What do these people have in common?”, and “Did these people cross your mind as you were reading the text book chapter on autism?” I now discuss autistic features with my students in a different framework. When or under what conditions do autistic people get an official DSM diagnosis? What about people who self-diagnose? I underscore strengths, in addition to challenges that may be faced, depending on the social context in which one lives and grows up. And, most importantly, I underscore the lesson I had to learn myself: autism is not written on people’s foreheads, but every word I say should consider the fact that I may be talking to an autistic person. I need to choose my words carefully and respectfully, so as to create an environment in which an autistic person will also feel valued and safe to share their ideas or experiences.

And now, we observe Autism Acceptance Month … because words matter.

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