For journalists and other media content producers
Talking sensitively, accurately and positively about autism in the media is crucial. Autistic people tell us that autism is part of who they are - not something they would take away. They want society to be aware of both the challenges and strengths associated with autism, and accept and embrace difference. This guide aims to help journalists use the right language and understand the needs of autistic interviewees.
Talking about autism
Autism is a lifelong developmental condition which changes the way people communicate and experience the world around them. Some autistic people are able to learn, live and work independently but many have learning difficulties or co-occurring health problems that require specialist support.
Getting language right
- Many autistic people are proud to be autistic - it is part of who they are. They prefer the term 'autistic’ e.g. ‘he is autistic’ or ‘an autistic adult’, never the noun e.g. ‘an autistic’.
- Parents may prefer ‘on the autism spectrum’.
- Avoid the terms ‘Aspergers’ or ‘Aspie’ - these are no longer given as a diagnosis.
- Use of the word 'condition' is ok, and in the right context ‘disability’, but ‘disease’ or ‘disorder’ should be avoided.
- Don’t use ‘mild/severe autism’ or ‘high/low functioning’, instead say ‘autistic without/with learning difficulties’.
- Don’t use ‘non-verbal’ to describe autistic people who speak few or no words. ‘Minimally verbal’ is more acceptable but should be avoided if possible.
- Don’t use negative language like ‘suffering from’ or ‘paralysed by autism’. Use this language when talking about co-occurring difficulties e.g. ‘suffering from anxiety’.
- Wherever possible, stress that autism has positives.
- Focus on the hope offered by research not just the hardships faced by autistic people.
- Similarly, talk about how research can improve lives, not fix problems.
- 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 it can bring great joy too. 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.