"And Then I Thanked Her"
By John Driscoll
Approximately 16 years ago I brought my “son who has autism” to a family Thanksgiving celebration. At the celebration we had the traditional turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and of course pumpkin pie. The air smelled delicious and it felt warm with loving thoughts. Close family were in attendance and some distant family members were also abound. I remember at one point I was sitting near an elderly woman, who was nearing 90 years old, her smile alone made me feel extremely welcomed and safe. My son who was only about 3-4 years old at the time arrived and showed his big, beautiful crystal blue eyes just over the height of the kitchen table. The woman, whom I had only just been introduced to, began to speak and she said to me “John I have met a retard once, a mongoloid once but never one of those he is beautiful”. I briefly chuckled and then I thanked her.
You see she meant no harm in her choice of words; her intension was simply to compliment and the words she chose were common to her generation. I felt no insult; but actually reassured in my feeling of welcome and safety. I even felt it extended to my son with all his exceptionalities.
“Exceptionalities” is the new term for “special” which replaced terms like disabled, handicapped and before them words like retarded. Many of the original meanings of retarded or retardation are
The act of slowing down or falling behind, the slowing down of mental functioning and bodily movement, the extent to which something is held back or delayed, hindrance
Retardation was used as a medical diagnosis or a description of a condition a person had or was inflicted with so that appropriate treatment could be rendered. Overtime the meaning of these words did not change but our perception of them did. Our own fear of being labeled” Not PC” caused us to disregard a word or phrase because it had somehow become dirty. In my many years of educating and being educated I have been informed that I should not refer to my son who has autism as my “autistic son” because it is offensive.
I have always wondered to whom they felt I was offending. My son is not insulted by myself or my wife who show him unconditional love and support. We are not offended by the term that describes him or his diagnosis. My son is autistic. No matter what order you place the adjective or diagnosis in or if you refer to it as autism, PDD, a spectrum disorder or some other new term? He still needs me. He needs me to help him brush his teeth, wash his clothes, order his food, and tie his shoes…... Unless a miracle happens he will remain with my wife and I until we are old and gray. My hope is only that he lives a happy, long life and that I or my wife is with him for as long as he is here.
While in graduate school I had an instructor tell me” autism is something your son has like brown hair, it is not what he is”. A disability is not like having a freckle and in Joseph’s case it affects his and our entire way of life. He does not have a job, he will not go off to college or get married, and he cannot communicate very easily with very many people and is considered to be of a low incident or low frequency in regards to his disorder. Which basically means, to lay people, that he is severely affected by autism? My wife and I have chosen our jobs to be there for him. What we chose to eat for dinner is in consideration of him. The modifications to our home are so we can take care of him. So, if it makes it easier to say to someone that I need to be home at a certain time to meet my autistic son’s bus instead of giving a long strung out explanation of why I have to be home to meet my adult son who has autism and freckles, so be it. Of course, if I ever meet someone who can tell me that they prefer to be called some term over another because they are uncomfortable with a term or that they find it offensive I will certainly do the “PC” thing and oblige them by doing as they wish. But I truly believe political correctness is not about the words we use or in what order we use them but more so the intention and application in which we deliver them.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mr. Driscoll is a resident of Gloucester City and a former Gloucester City Police Officer. He is the father of seven children. He has recently obtained his Master's Degree in Special Education.