For journalists and other media content producers
Talking sensitively, accurately and positively about autism in the media is crucial. Autistic people and their families want society to understand both the challenges and strengths associated with autism and to be more inclusive or empathetic.
This guide aims to help you write about autism and understand the needs of autistic interviewees. There is no right or wrong way to talk about autism, or to an autistic person. Be led by the person you are speaking to, be positive where you can and get your facts right!
Autism is a lifelong developmental condition. It is a spectrum condition – it affects people in a variety of ways. It changes the way people communicate and experience the world around them. Some autistic people may live independently, some may require support in certain areas of their life, and others have full-time care. Many autistic people have other conditions such as anxiety and epilepsy or learning difficulties which affect them in day to day life.
In a recent consultation, the majority of autistic people preferred the term autistic. We use this term. For example: he is autistic or autistic adult. Parents generally prefer on the autism spectrum.
The terms Aspergers (sometimes shortened to Aspie) is no longer given as a medical diagnosis so is not used widely, although some people may still use this label.
People mostly use the word condition when talking about autism, some people use disability, but disease or disorder should be avoided.
Some people may use the terms mild or severe or high or low functioning, but others find this too simplistic or offensive. It may be best to say talk about the person in terms of how being autistic affects them:
He is autistic and has a learning disability so needs support with everyday things like cooking and dressing.
Because she was autistic, she struggled with the social side of the workplace, so they provided her with a buddy.
We say speak few or no words over the term non-verbal but both can be used.
Negative language like suffering from or paralysed by autism can be misleading as in many cases it is a co-occurring condition that causes distress. It may be more appropriate to say struggling with anxiety related to autism for example rather than struggling with autism
Do talk about autistic people's strengths, interests and personalities, think of a person as a whole, don’t just focus on challenges.
Avoid abstract language, sarcasm or metaphor - some autistic people can take things literally.
Interview tips from autistic people
- Ask us how we’d like to communicate - e.g. we might not like talking on the phone.
- Don’t think we’re being rude because we react honestly or avoid shaking your hand.
- Don’t expect eye contact. For some of us it’s hard and listening is easier if we look away.
- Do be patient and understanding. We may take longer to process the meaning of your words, give us a little time if we need it.
- Do treat autistic people with respect. If we are quiet or behave differently, don’t speak down to us, treat us as equals.
- Don't be sad that we’re autistic. It's just the way we process the world. It’s challenging at times, but we wouldn't be the same if we weren’t autistic.
- Do mean what you say and keep your promises. Don’t say you’ll call in 5 minutes if you mean fifteen. If you say an interview is definitely happening, don’t cancel it last minute.
- Do give us as much information upfront as possible. Questions in advance, maps and pictures can really help minimise anxiety.
- Ask us direct questions rather than vague open-ended questions.