Words Have Power

What I Mean When I Say Words Have Power

When people come across the phrase, words have power, more often than not they associate it with famous speeches from public figures. History records many powerful orations from famous people that have influenced public opinion or social direction. Whether you think of Martin Luther King’s, I Have a Dream, or Winston Churchill’s, We Shall Fight on the Beaches, or any of the countless other examples, most people would admit that words have power, regardless of whether they agreed with the content of these speeches. But we don’t always understand the more subtle ways that words have power.

There is a famous psychology experiment (Loftus & Palmer 1974 – an excellent description of which can be found at Simply Psychology, click here) that looked into how memory can be retroactively affected by new information. In the 1974 experiment, 45 participants were shown films of traffic accidents, and then were asked leading questions about those accidents. For example, they might be asked whether two vehicles smashed into each other, or collided, etc. When asked to estimate the speeds at which the vehicles hit each other, there was a significant difference in the answers from participants: Those who had been asked about vehicles smashing into each other estimated higher speeds than those asked about vehicles bumping into each other, even though they had watched the same films. The implications of this misinformation effect are staggering. We human beings like to think of our memories as recordings in our mind, although most of us will accept that those recordings are sometimes a little faulty or gappy. But memory doesn’t work like recordings. When we recall events, we create new mental constructions of them, and psychology has shown repeatedly that our memories are subject to influence and change. The work of Loftus and Palmer, and others, has shown that our memories and the way we think can be affected by other people’s words without our even realising. This has implications for the things we say in our everyday conversations and our social media activity, especially in unguarded moments. Our words and spoken opinions have a way of getting out there and affecting other people’s thoughts and opinions in the most subtle ways.

Let me give you an example of how the words of everyday conversation can have power. This example is not taken directly from real life, but is more of an aggregation of the types of interactions I have seen as something of a people-watcher, particularly during my time in management. It’s the kind of situation many of us will be familiar with:

Lee is at work, rushing down a corridor with a bunch of documents that urgently need posting. Coming to a corner in the corridor, Lee physically bumps into new employee Pat coming the other way, and the documents end up all over the floor. Later, Lee is having a coffee with some friends in the canteen, and tells them about what happened in the corridor. There are now two versions of what follows:

  1. (Lee Likes Pat): “I bumped into Pat earlier. We literally bumped into each other, and I dropped all my stuff like a klutz. Pat seems very cool, though.”
  2. (Lee does not like Pat): “That idiot Pat barged into me in the corridor, and made me drop all my stuff. Ended up making me late for the post.”

Two ways of describing an encounter, based on Lee’s personal preconceptions about Pat, each of which we can probably recognise from having come across similar events. But what we might not readily consider is the ongoing impact of Lee’s words. Describing the new employee as very cool might elicit a comment from one of the friends; “Yeah, I’ve met Pat, I agree, very cool.” This might mean that one of the other friends who had formed an initially negative opinion of Pat is now prepared to give the newcomer a chance, based on what is essentially passive peer pressure. On the other hand, describing the newcomer as an idiot who barged in might encourage other people to voice negative opinions, and might make anyone who had initially formed a positive opinion reconsider. Again, various studies in psychology have shown us that people tend to agree with, and go along with, the people around them. This agreement is often facilitated by the words we use with each other. So, what has this got to do with autism? Come with me…

Autism is big business. In fact, autism is a multi-billion-dollar global money-making machine for an industry that has built up around it. If you google autism you will quickly be overwhelmed by sources espousing so-called “cures” or “treatments” or “therapies” or “interventions” for autism. You will be assailed by advertisements for autism-related merchandise, or by websites for organisations that purport to support autistic people, asking for your donations so that they can continue their “research”.

However, the fact is that autistic people generally reject the idea of “cures” or “treatments” for autism, and many of the so-called “therapies”, such as ABA (Applied Behavioural Analysis) have proven to be downright harmful to autistic people. As for the merchandise, autistic people usually reject anything with the jigsaw puzzle piece design, as we find it insulting and hurtful, but that is the design you will see on almost every single piece of autism-related merchandise you come across. If you are asked to donate to a charity funding “research” into autism, you’d better check what that research is, because there’s a good chance it’s something that autistic people would not be happy with, perhaps relating to so-called “cures, therapies, treatments and interventions”.

You also find certain celebrities or big names from the psychology or psychiatry community making public comments about autism and autistic people. So many of these high-profile people and organisations have lots of things to say, suggest, or claim about autism… but rarely if ever do they listen to autistic people. All too often, autistic people go unheard. Instead, what we have is a vast community of people who are not autistic telling the world what to think about autism and autistic people. One of the major reasons for this is that the worldwide autism money-train relies on controlling public perception of autism. That money-train is funding research organisations, retailers, and high-flying psychologists, maintaining their reputations, and keeping them in the manner they are accustomed to. We call these people the autism community – they are non-autistic people (researchers, psychologists, fundraisers, retailers, etc) who are actively trying to control the public narrative about autism and autistic people. The autism community should not be confused with the autistic community, which is made up of people who are autistic, and who are desperately trying to get our voices heard.

The way the autism community controls public perception of autistic people is through language; through the messages they put out there into the world. We autistic people are consistently described by the autism community in terms of deficiencies, as though we are faulty, broken, or incomplete human beings. The truth is that autism is not an illness – don’t take my word for it, google it; do your research – but nevertheless, harmful so-called “cures”, “interventions” and “therapies” such as ABA are hawked at worried parents of autistic kids. Well-meaning people get sucked into buying merchandise to show their support for autistic people, oblivious to the fact that the jigsaw puzzle design on their purchase is regarded by the autistic community as a symbol of hate that portrays autistic people as humans with missing pieces, or as problems to be “solved”. Virtually all the language about autistic people that emanates from the autism community describes autistic people in negative terms. The language used works in a subtle, gradual way; a drip-drip effect that worms its way into the public consciousness, ensuring that millions of people worldwide become frightened about autism. Parents who receive an autism diagnosis for their children are anguished, some grieving as though they have lost their child, because they have absorbed this negative narrative of autism. One of the most subtle and insidious ways that language disseminates a negative understanding of autism is the use of person-first language.

Person-first language is often used by people who think it is a politically correct way to describe disabled people. Thus, they claim it is better to say person with blindness or person with deafness or person with autism than blind person, deaf person, or autistic person. They claim that a disability does not define a person, and so should not be the first part of any description of the disabled person. Unfortunately for those who use person-first language, they forgot to check with disabled people first. We don’t like person-first language. Numerous disability organisations have publicly rejected person-first language. Many of us disabled people think our disability does in fact define us – this is a particularly prevalent view among autistic people. But we still get called people with autism, or people who have autism. Autism is not something that can be removed from an autistic person, like taking off a hat. We do not have autism in any way that could make sense, because autism is not a thing that can be pointed to, held, weighed, or pictured. In truth, it probably makes no meaningful sense to use the word autism as a noun. Autism is everything about an autistic person; it informs every part of us; we are autistic! But when person-first language is deployed against us, it combines with other language to devastating effect. Let me explain:

Once it is said that someone has autism, this combines with the description of autism as a problem that needs to be dealt with. Some of the terminology used around autism has one meaning in a technical sense, but another meaning in a colloquial sense, and that’s where the problem starts. For example, autism is diagnosed by mental health professionals. The word diagnosis is colloquially associated with illness. Technically, it can mean any process used to get to the root cause of an effect, and then the description of that effect. But most people, when they hear “diagnosis” think in terms of illness. Autism is not an illness; it is a neurological difference – and I’m not splitting hairs; a glance at the NHS website will confirm autism is not an illness. But the use of person-first language alongside talk of diagnosis – “She’s been diagnosed with autism,” sows a certain kind of seed in the mind of the unwary. Use of the term autism spectrum disorder in diagnosis exacerbates the problem, because again, the word disorder has negative connotations colloquially. This combines with an onslaught of misinformation in popular culture about autism; lies that say autistic people are dangerous, that we lack empathy, that we are incapable of love, that we are violent, and on and on.

These lies combine yet further with the big business of the autism community insisting that autistic people need “cures, therapies and interventions”. The words cure and therapy evoke thoughts of illnesses and problems. The word intervention evokes thoughts of addictions and anti-social behaviour. This is the kind of language the autism community drip feeds into the public consciousness, creating a myth that autistic people are in some way broken, faulty, or lacking in fundamentally human qualities. This creates public unease, and even fear of autism and autistic people. This fear ensures there will always be a ready market of people willing to pay for so-called “cures, therapies, and interventions” that are unnecessary and often harmful to autistic people. The amount of money generated by this industry annually is colossal, and people are getting rich from it.

Autism is not an illness but of course, there is nothing wrong with illness; I am not trying to demonise any language that recognises genuine illness. And autistic people are statistically more prone to certain illnesses than the general population. However, it is important that we do not conflate these co-occurring illnesses with autism. Many autistic people suffer with, for example, epilepsy. But epilepsy is not autism, and autism is not epilepsy. Unfortunately, some areas of the autism community will deliberately try to conflate the two in order to cover up their motives. The Spectrum 10k project is an example of this. Spectrum 10k claims its research will help autistic people, referring to issues like epilepsy as a smokescreen to hide opening the door to a program of eugenics (this issue is too complex to cover adequately in this article, but you can read more by clicking here).

Another type of illness that autistic people are more prone to than the general population is mental illness such as depression and anxiety. The causes are many and complex, but one cause that should not be underestimated is the social exclusion, isolation, harassment, bullying, and discrimination autistic people experience daily. We autistic people are desperately misunderstood by the rest of the population, and this makes us depressed and anxious. Suicide is a leading cause of death among autistic people. A major contributing factor to the exclusion, isolation, harassment, bullying, and discrimination we face is the public misconception of autistic people as broken, faulty, deficient, disordered; as problems to be solved. This misconception is fuelled by the constant drip-drip of negative language used to describe autistic people.

Thanks to the internet, autistic people are now talking to each other in massive numbers online. We are sharing our experiences, comparing notes, and emerging as a true autistic community. It is my belief, my hope, and my aim that by taking control of the public narrative around autism, we can work to dispel the misinformation and lies, and look to a future in which there is true acceptance of autistic people.

Darren Scothern, June 2022.