Bryce Huebner, a superstarpostdoctoralphilosophygraduate currently working in Marc Hauser’s lab at Harvard, recently sent me the following query. Bryce is writing up descriptions of research on autism / autism spectrum disorder and theory of mind (ToM), research that explores differences between experimental subject populations (you know, controlled studies and all that), often different populations of children. He writes:
I am really struggling with the sort of language to use in discussing some of the developmental data on mental state ascriptions. Here’s my problem. I want to try to avoid ableist language in discussing ToM. But I’m not sure how to discuss the similar capacities that emerge for both ‘normally developing’ children and ‘developmentally disabled’ children in contrasting these capacities with the lack of one sort of ToM that we see in children with autism spectrum disorder. Do you have any suggestions about how to avoid the use of terms like ‘developmentally disabled’ in this case?
My short answer was that while there are patches here and there, ableist language in both the scientific literature on autism / autism spectrum disorder and much everyday thinking on autism is permeated with words and phrases that are stigmatized, and that there’s likely no global solution that doesn’t create other problems, and (b) I would blog this, with permission, at What Sorts, since the collective intelligence housed here is much greater than could ever be housed in my pea-sized brain.
For “developmentally disabled populations”, once could talk about the specific diagnoses or characteristics of those lumped together under that heading. But does that solve any problem? Is this a lump in the carpet that is pushed down in one place only to annoyingly appear elsewhere?
So, solutions, suggestions, reflections on the problem? Or is it not even a problem to begin with? While there has been some discussion on the blog about ableist language (such as on ableist slurs and a useful link to CBC’s Disability Matters), some of you might have more to offer, either in general or specifically on ASD, developmental disability, mental retardation, etc..