Autism and the "R-Word": Special Needs Living

Suzanne Murray

r r-word that's retardedEvery week, guest blogger Katie Olson (aurorabunny), mom to 3-year-old Brody, shares the ongoing struggles and triumphs that often come with parenting a child with special needs.

Today, Katie talks about why she polices people who use the word "retarded" in a derogatory way.

Before my son was diagnosed with autism, I was an avid user of the R-word. When I thought something was particularly lame, "that's retarded" was a phrase that easily tumbled out of my own mouth. I never thought about the fact that it might hurt someone's feelings or deeply offend anyone. I didn't really think about it at all.

But as soon as I learned that my son Brody had autism, I suddenly saw the word in a whole new light. I made it my business to give a stern lecture to anyone that I caught saying it.

One night after delivering the aforementioned lecture to my sister, she caught me off-guard by asking, "Why do you care if I use that word? It's not like Brody's retarded." Well, I knew that. So why DID this word bother me so much?

For one, kids are just plain mean. When I was in high school, any kid with any type of limitation or condition -- even those that had nothing to do with mental capacity -- had the R-word hurled at them constantly. Also, I suddenly had a big hurting hole in my heart for other children (and their parents) who were different and who might have cringed or cried or hung their head every time they heard the word "retarded" used in a derogatory way, and I didn't want to contribute to that. 

As time went on, though, I stopped being so offended when I heard people using this word. Although it still bothered me, I did realize that it was a slang term. When a friend used it in conversation, I knew they weren't trying to hurt my feelings or make fun of my son. I'm no fan of having things be so overly PC; I find it ridiculous that I often fall victim to ridicule for calling my own son autistic instead of saying "child with autism."  But recently, while reading the back and forth conversation of a few friends on Facebook, I saw "That's autistic!" being used as an insult much like the R-word has been. What?! 

It was as if someone had re-opened a wound. Are people really so cruel that calling someone retarded just isn't quite mean enough anymore? Clearly it's necessary to up the ante by using names of neurological disorders and turning them into insults as well. 

Now I don't WANT to stop caring about people using the R-word. In America today it's no longer acceptable to even call someone "fat," and there have been country-wide campaigns launched to snuff out usage of "that's gay." Apparently the only ones left to pick on are the mentally disabled.

Even as I write this, I get angrier and angrier. I DO realize that many people using the R-word are decent people who have never had any reason to stop and think about why using this word might hurt someone so much. 

Hopefully now they will.


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