Monday, May 01, 2006


[Note: I posted on some thing about disability rights blogs that asked us to post on May 1. I said I might if I got around to it. I guess I did.]
Labeling is a contentious issue, and I (and it seems many other autistics) have a particular, unusual view of it.
Many words have two parts to their meaning - denotative and connotative. For example, with the words normal and abnormal, the denotiative meaning of normal is "part of the majority" (for example the majority of people can hear sounds at 20dB volume, the majority of my days none of my pets die, etc) and the denotative meaning of abnormal is not normal (for example, a person who can't hear sounds at 20dB volume or a day when one of my pets dies). The connotation is different. The connotation of normal is OK, acceptable, sometimes even perfect, and the connotation of abnormal is damaged, bad, unacceptable.
Autistics are described as being literalistic. For example, interpreting the sentence "it's raining cats and dogs" as indicating cats and dogs falling from the sky. This could be viewed as having to do with denotation and connotation. The denotation of "it's raining cats and dogs" is cats and dogs falling from the sky, the connotation is a lot of water falling down.
One characteristic I've seen in myself compared to some allistics (non-autistics) is that I seem more capable of separating denotation and connotation. I grasp both, but it seems many allistics have much more awareness of connotation than denotation. For example, I know of many people who say you shouldn't say mentally retarded, but have no trouble with the term developmentally delayed. But the denotation is the same. Both mean that development is slow, held back. The only difference is that development could also refer to physical traits such as height and pubertal characteristics and non-cognitive aspects affecting motor development (such as paralysis). However, for many people mentally retarded has a bad connotation that developmentally delayed doesn't have. I personally think that in this case the connatation comes from descrimination and will eventually spread to any new word coined to describe that particular group of people, unless the descrimination is stopped. For example, the medical terms used to be idiot (IQ under 25), imbecile (IQ 25-50) and moron (IQ 50-70/85 or so). Then the terminology was changed to trainable, educable and severely mentally retarded to remove certain connotations that idiot, moron and imbecile had developed. Now I've heard people try to insult each other by calling each other retarded.
Labels are often viewed as hiding a person's humanity. But most people recognize that people labeled White men are humans. What hides a person's humanity are prejudice-based connotations (and even some traits connotativekly associated with something don't hide a person's humanity directly, but through their own connotations). Labels, if used properly, mean exactly the denotative meaning. For example, the label of ADHD means the person has some combination of hyperactivity, attention differences and impulsivity. It does not mean criminal, male, low intelligence, needing a pill or any of the other connotations some people connect with ADHD. Some ADHD people fit some of those traits but the label of ADHD doesn't mean that, you need another label to specify that.