The Spectrum

I wonder if it’s kosher to publicly  refer to a public figure as “on the spectrum” — on the autism  spectrum?

Greta Thunberg, the young and eloquent climate activist, was treated nastily on twitter by the most powerful American alive, and she responded, on twitter, with cutting irony. But as I watched an MSNBC account, full of sympathy for her, and outraged by the attack by the President, the morning commentator repeated a dozen times, to evoke sympathy for her,  that she was 16 and “on the spectrum.

If she’s “on the spectrum,” doesn’t that undercut the reliability of her message? What if we referred to her as “on medication” or “in a remedial reading class” or a “recovering juvenile delinquent”?

I suppose the commentator was claiming you shouldn’t kick someone disabled. But why divert attention from the nastiness of an attack by focusing on disability? And really!?!  What do we know about “the spectrum” — apart from it’s recent entry into casual conversation?  Is it like stuttering or having a limp?

Among professional psychologists, “on the spectrum” may have a spot along with “bipolar,” or “manic-depressive.” But we don’t throw these terms around in public discourse — though they may be whispered by non-professionals under their breath.  But in my experience, this whisper is mostly in a derogatory or pitying vein.

Can’t journalists be a bit more sensitive here?  Doesn’t the label throw her message under the bus?


3 comments on “The Spectrum

  1. Jon Awbrey says:

    Personally, I worry more about people at the orange to red end of the sociopathic spectrum.

  2. Reshef says:

    In her case, though, the message is very strong, and the personality is extremely compelling. And my sense is that mentioning this fact about her does not to hurt the message. For me it didn’t, anyway, but I don’t represent much, although I don’t think I’m alone. If this is true for enough others too, though, then I wonder if mentioning the fact that she has been so diagnosed might actually serve to help make room for other people with similar diagnoses in the public sphere–kill, or at least scathe, this bird with the same stone. I mean, it might go like this: Someone might at first assume that this fact about her undercuts the reliability of her message, and then, when they see it doesn’t do so in the minds of many others,they might change their mind–not only about the message, but about the place of people with such diagnoses in the public sphere. But I’m probably too optimistic.

  3. dmf says:

    unfortunately the term is widely used in common parlance and yes in this case it undercuts her agency in such mentions but no one on either side of the issue will be moved by this. When I kept reading/hearing them do this I did wish someone would ask them what it added to their point.

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