Speaking About Autism

I work as a producer for a morning show, and one of the great things about my job is the incredible array of smart and talented people I get to work with when planning and producing interviews. Recently I produced a segment with the terrific filmmaker Cooper Raiff, the director of the new film ‘Cha Cha Real Smooth’ which won the audience award at Sundance this year. The film stars Dakota Johnson as the mom of Lola, a teenager with autism, played by Vanessa Burghardt, an actor with autism. For the film’s casting director Angela Demo, it was completely off the table to consider neurotypical actors for the part of Lola, who is on the autism spectrum. Click here to read the Variety article about the commitment to authentic casting in Cha Cha Real Smooth. I loved the film and what I also loved was the information Cooper’s communications team provided to help the on-air hosts speak about autism during interviews. Often colleagues will ask me questions about how to speak about autism on the air as the mom of a child with ASD, and these points offered by the PR rep could not sum it up better:

In speaking about autism:

• Autism falls under the umbrella of neurodiversity / neurodivergence, but not all neurodiverse people are autistic. Being on the autism spectrum can impact the ways in which an individual communicates, engages in social interactions and other behaviors.

• If you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism: autism is not a monolith, and each individual’s experience and the expression of their autism is different and can even vary from day-to-day. “Cha Cha Real Smooth” tells the unique story of one character who happens to be autistic.

• Avoid passive, victim words and instead use accurate, respectful language: rather than “he suffers from autism,” use “he has autism,” “he’s autistic” or “he’s on the autism spectrum.”

• Avoid “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” labels. Neither is a clinical diagnosis, and these labels can minimize the support that individuals with autism may need, in addition to prioritizing an ableist perception of how one should interact with society. Many in the community prefer language such as “high support needs,” “low support needs,” but it’s also best to describe the person’s needs that day or event as needs change.

• People with disabilities, such as autism, should not be described as “inspirational” or “courageous” simply because they have a disability, nor should they be infantilized in how they’re addressed or perceived. As the community says, “always assume competence.”

Such thoughtful and clear information about what can be a confusing, emotional and divisive topic. People feel differently about what language to use surrounding autism in discussions and I feel this is an excellent guide to follow. And it’s a terrific film… you can check out the Cha Cha Real Smooth trailer here.

Your Turn: What do you think? Leave a comment here…