A is for Autism, but a capital A is even better

As someone who has taught English and written, both creatively and to earn a living, for almost 40 years, I have a vested interest in language and the way that it’s used.

I can’t stand the haphazard use of perfect tenses in the US, which have also begun creeping into Australian usage. I often hear expressions like: I should have went to the party but was too tired. When the grammatically correct expression …should have gone… still serves us well.

If I go by what I read on the internet, it seems everyone believes ‘however’ can be used as a conjunction to join clauses in a sentence (Glenn talks a lot, however I still like him), when it can’t, it mustn’t! It’s ‘but’ that you’re looking for. Glenn talks a lot, but I still like him.

‘However’ shows the relationship between sentences: Glenn talks a lot. However, I still like him. Can be used as an adverb: Glenn was feeling bad. He went to the party, however, and tried to have fun. Or before an adjective or adverb: However hard he tried, Glenn could not control his feelings.

If you are desperate to use ‘however’ for contrast in the middle of a sentence – instead of the tried and true ‘but’ – then please, please punctuate it correctly: Glenn talks a lot; however, I still like him. Note the red (in this case, for emphasis) semicolon before and the red comma after it.

And please don’t give me any guff about how ‘however’ is formal and ‘but’ informal. What rot!

Finally, by way of making my point about what a stickler I am for language, I’d like to highlight the irreparable damage done to my ears (not to mention what is clearly my delicate sensibility) by anyone in Australia under the age of 30 (including my own son!) as a result of their pronunciation of words that end in ‘r’.

In Australian English (or English English for that matter), it is not ‘motherrrrr’ with its overemphasised, hard ‘r’, as those in the US would say. It is ‘moth-ah’, like you’ve hurt yourself, or as the doctor has you announce as they thrust a tongue depressor into your mouth.

Of course my wife, well-credentialed linguist that she is, would point out that language evolves and that “Anything a native speaker says is correct.” To which I would retort (and am retorting now), “Bunkum! There is what’s right and what’s wrong. Ignorance must indeed be bliss!” (Actually, I’d pause, look at my wife’s face, hitch my pants, pause again while I wonder if I should say what I’m thinking of saying, then say it: “What crap…”. But the ‘bunkum’ sentence has an air of gravitas I don’t possess in real life.)

Now to completely contradict myself

Those of you who have been with me since the early days of this blog, all 10 or 11 weeks of it, and are particularly observant, may have noticed a change in the way I write the word ‘Autism’.

During the first few weeks, it looked like this: autism. Unless it was at the beginning of a sentence. Now, it looks exclusively like this: Autism.

When I wrote my piece for Reframing Autism, their ‘Content Lead’ returned an edit to me dominated by the capitalisation of the letter ‘A’ in the words ‘Autism’ and ‘Autistic’.

She explained that she had done this to reflect their ‘house style’, which made sense to me as I had created the house style at the last place at which I had worked.

There, we’d decided to capitalise the ‘M’ in Members, because it was (and still is) a member-based organisation (meaning members’ fees paid our wages), and we wanted our members to feel, through what we published, their importance.

So it is for Reframing Autism, with the mandatory capitalisation of the ‘A’ in Autism and its various forms serving as a sign of respect for the Autistic community.

Still, knowing this back then didn’t stop me starting my own website with the small ‘a’ as my preference. Because that’s what is, technically, grammatically correct.

But as the weeks rolled by and I reflected on my life, on my struggles and my torment, and I read and learnt more about Autism, its history, the way its viewed by many in society, how far we have to go in having it recognised as a neurological difference that debilitates, that disables, rather than as a mere illness to be cured, my grip on exactness began to slip.

Autism is more than a word

Earlier this year, on reddit (it’s written like that, with a small ‘r’ 😉), someone posed a question: Do you prefer it as Autism (capital A) or autism (lowercase a)?

In total, 560 people voted. 141 chose Autism (capital A), 419 autism (lowercase a). The people had spoken and the results could not have been more emphatic in favour of the small ‘a’. But, in my view, the people were wrong.

It’s impossible in most cases to tell if those who voted were Autistic themselves or not. And even within the Autistic community, people refer to themselves in a variety of ways – something I wholeheartedly respect.

The conversation on reddit (there are 31 comments) leans heavily towards language and its ‘proper’ use, and whether or not we should be capitalising medical terminology.

I used to teach medical English to international health professionals, and I can tell you, most conditions and illnesses are not capitalised. Not even cancer, colloquially known as ‘the big C’.

Thing is, though, Autism isn’t an illness. It isn’t a ‘disorder’ either (despite what the letters in the acronym ASD spell). It’s a community, it’s who I am and who we are. I am Autistic, I don’t catch it the way I might COVID or the even more common cold.

The energy some spend trying to eradicate it, to find a ‘cure’, would in my view be much better spent on providing adequate supports to Autistic people, on validation, on education for the wider, non-Autistic world.

Autism isn’t only you or me, it’s the parents of Autistic kids, the caregivers and support workers, the agencies and organisations, the friends and allies and loved ones who are with us through all the good and the bad.

That’s why using the capital A has become so important to me. It’s a simple way that I can show my respect.

Sure it isn’t, from a language standpoint, technically the way we should write it – and even now it does still sometimes tug a little at that large place in my head where correctness resides.

But I do it for the community I now know I belong to, to help empower and, maybe, to even enthuse them.

If you also choose to use the capital A, who knows where it might lead us. Maybe to a place of greater acceptance, a place of dignity.

And I don’t know about you, but to me, that sounds like a pretty nice place to live.

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  1. Hi Glenn, you are doing such a wonderful job here, so clear and articulate. I am a late self identified highly masked Autistic and came across your blog while also considering writing about my experience. I’m amazed at how much your writing resonates with my experience, to the point where I think I don’t have much to add. That’s a compliment, I should state clearly. Thank you, and keep it up.

    • Really appreciate the generous feedback, Nik. 😊 Also hope your Autistic journey is going well. I’ll try and do my small bit by continuing to tap away here. I’d encourage you to document your own experiences as well if you’ve been considering it. I think it’ll help you – and it all raises greater awareness about late-diagnosed Autistic people like ourselves. But do please keep coming back to my corner of the internet, too!

    • Thanks Vol – appreciate your kind words. 🙂 I really like that quote from Ken Kesey. I’ve often thought that it feels like the older I get, the less I really know about life and the world we all inhabit. But that saying that is actually I positive thing. Thanks for looking in on my little blog, too!

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