Neurodivergent: The Unheard Faction

“You’re such a retard!” I heard a boy behind me say in my homeroom. I immediately stopped talking to my friend and turned around. “Don’t say that word.” I said. His response was, “Why?” 

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time I heard a fellow classmate use that dreaded term. And it wasn’t the first time I asked them to stop. So, what is the big deal? Well, I’ll tell you why.

The word “retard” goes as far back as the 1400s, coming from a Latin word meaning “to hinder” or “to delay.” In the English language, the word has continued to go through many developments. In the late 19th century, “retard” became a medical term to refer to children with intellectual disabilities. Back then, our knowledge of mental health wasn’t as progressive as it is today. Along with “retard”, words such as “idiot”, “moron” or “cretin” even were genuine medical terms to refer to people with an intellectual disability. But “retard” became the dominant word to use when talking about neurodivergence. Currently, we use words such as disabled. “Retarded” as a medical term is now outdated. So why do we keep using it?

“Retard” nowadays means someone who is stupid and is used as an insult. Unfortunately, this word is most commonly associated with people who are neurodivergent. That means people who are autistic, have ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, etc. I have my own personal experiences with that word being associated with me. Kids made fun of me for not comprehending stuff as fast as the average person, made fun of my “weird” interests, made fun of a lisp I had, and once, a kid said that I was “retarded.” I didn’t know the negative connotations that word had at the time. I was innocent. But I’m not stupid. 

According to people I have talked to here at ISL, there is a major issue with kids using those words. Ms. Mullins says, “I do hear them consistently among students and it’s not just secondary students either, primary students use them too.” Not just the word retard, but “spastic”, a word incredibly offensive towards disabled people, and even the word “autistic” was used as a derogatory, which it shouldn’t be. It is never okay to use disabilities or neurodivergent people as a synonym for stupidity. Autism itself isn’t something to be ashamed of having! But as I and many other people think this, how do other people in ISL see this all too prevalent issue?

Well, I sent out a survey to all high school students and had plenty of responses. One colourful response I got was It’s called jokes, which I’m sure you’re unfamiliar with if you have to ask this question.” I have received a lot of these responses, saying that using these words are okay in the context of a joke. I ask you, think of any phrase where you made a “joke” using those words. There is a difference between dark humour, and something that is just offensive and unnecessary. 

Ms. Mullins, who helps lead the Autism Acceptance Service project, I think perfectly sums up what the results of my survey tell me. She said, “It is not that they don’t understand what these words are or what they mean or why it is wrong, it is just that some people think that the terms are okay to use depending on the context and environment.” In an interview with her, we discussed how neurotypical people, people who are not autistic or experience any other developmental differences, are taught that they are more superior than those who are neurodivergent or disabled, physically and mentally. This leads to what I personally call “neurotypical culture” where ignorance and misinformation encourages this behaviour. A solution to this would be a more thorough education about neurodivergent conditions.

The effects of this neurotypical culture we see at school are visible: We, the community, knowingly and unknowingly degrade the worth of our neurodivergent pupils. Personally, the neurotypical culture I had to put up within and outside ISL has had a great effect on me. I have a perpetual fear of being known as “stupid.” I feel like I have to prove to others that I am intelligent. I have constantly felt like that I was being treated as the dumb kid in my classes, or the kid who overreacts to everything. People reading this may think I’m overreacting about this very issue, and to those people, you may think that about me. It doesn’t make me wrong though. 

If you personally use words like retard, autistic, spastic, sick in the head, or whatever as an insult, even if it’s “just a joke” to you and your friends, stop. Just stop. You, intentionally or unintentionally, associate neurodivergent people with stupidity, but we aren’t. We are more self-aware than you think. We can still hear you. I can still hear you.