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Please Don't Call My Autistic Son "Buddy."

Thoughtful language, and moving beyond autism awareness to autism equality.

"Hey Buddy," a man said to his dog, who was tied to a pole while he went into a store. My husband and I laughed because there is something so right about addressing one's dog as "buddy." You just know that the dog is happy to be a buddy, Man's Best Friend. It's understood that there is a difference between the man and the dog, there is a power imbalance which is okay.

My oldest son Nat is 28. He gets called "Buddy," too, and by people younger than him, who are not even his friend. It is rare for people to address him directly about anything to do with him. People ask me if he wants a snack when he is right there next to me.

I believe this happens because people know that Nat has a disability—autism— and therefore they believe he is to be handled differently from a peer. I also believe that it is not done through malice—in fact, it is quite frequently the opposite, a fondness— but rather, in simply not thinking through the implications. Says Shannon Des Roches Rosa, Senior Editor at the journal Thinking Person's Guide to Autism and mother of an autistic son, "Too often they are informed by professionals who work with people with disabilities, not listening to people with disabilities or considering if they would speak to or about anyone who wasn’t disabled in such a fashion."

I do understand that Nat is different from the majority of people he meets. I understand the challenge of engaging Nat in a typical conversation. However, I see that Nat's struggles are more about another person's demand that he act like them, and answer that question exactly the way they expect, and in the timespan that they allot. And those who know that he can't do just what they want will simply circumvent him and go to me. And that is wrong. Neurotypical people, like me, are so used to crossing each other's boundaries and interpreting the social subtleties constantly. I really enjoy watching people and figuring out what they're really saying. However, I don't think Nat and many other autistics like that at all. This is a difference, not a flaw.

Nat is an equal and deserves to be treated as such. The autism movement has made so much progress—from institutionalization and shaming, to inclusion, to the new concept of neurodiversity. Now it is time to rethink our very relationships with one another, neurodivergent and neurotypical. I would start with avoiding the term "buddy" for people with disabilities. And service providers referring to "individuals" en masse rather than clients would be my next target.

Des Roches Rosa says, "People don’t talk that way to people they know and understand." She also adds, "I am less bothered by the word “buddy” itself, and more appalled by the way it gets used to patronize autistic & other disabled people—with what I can only describe as a “good dog” tone of voice." In this sense, perhaps the organization Best Buddies is a positive exception, because of the success of their program, and because the term buddies is used mutually, not just for the disabled peer.

I'm sure that when "buddy" for disabled people originated, it was a welcome change from something even worse, like when "mentally retarded" replaced "Mongoloid," or "idiot." And now we say "intellectually disabled," which helps discourage the disparaging use of the word "retarded." And along with the Americans with Disabilities Act, we now have laws on the books that direct public agencies to strike the words "Mentally Retarded" from their designations. Somewhere along the line, saying "buddy" felt new and inclusive.

But for the most part, "buddy" reminds me of the way, in terms of race relations, people declare, "I don't care if you are blue or orange or yellow, I don't see color in people!" We do see color in people. We do see disability. That's why we have accommodations. People use wheelchairs, hearing aids, Braille, and now some members of society are indeed becoming aware of the need for visuals, to flap rather than clap, and so on. We now need to progress to appreciating and celebrating difference, the way many self-advocates, particularly autistics, demonstrate an often jubilant identification with autism, similar to Gay Pride.

Seeing difference comfortably and without superiority is the path to true inclusion. Studying the difference is how we start to relate effectively, in a mode that's valuable to both people. Start by imagining that you have the disability because you can't understand him. Now you have to watch and listen and figure out his way, his boundaries. Now you experience how hard it is to appreciate those multiple sounds, those levels of color, that he is experiencing. Appreciate and perhaps even admire what his brain can do. Difference is a two-way street.

Because the next level of inclusion, beyond awareness and acceptance, is genuine mutuality. An end to superiority and assumptions. Perhaps a better word for all of that is equality.

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