I have written before about the major topics that appear in newspaper articles that are “about autism”*, with their bias towards articles that mention boys, children, mothering and negative words. Autism is more often written about as a disorder, of a child, in the context of a parent (usually the mother) and as a sufferer, victim or burden. In this post I am looking at how newspapers write about autism itself, the choice of wording and phrasing that surround the words ‘autism’, ‘autistic’ or ‘Asperger’. Trying to visualise the use of words, in large volumes of text, is a very exciting topic and the results here are well worth studying in detail.
My own position on the use of words is to try to accurately reflect the terms that people choose themselves, or in the sources that I am referencing. The images here are convincing evidence that some word choices have a significant effect on positive reporting. In particular, the (identity-first language) adjective ‘autistic’ favours thoughts about personhood and the (person-first language) noun ‘autism’ is associated with negative, dehumanised phrasing. This is consistent with the findings of the survey “Which terms should be used to describe autism? Perspectives from the UK autism community”.
There are some technical notes at the end for anyone interested in the computer methods used to produce the images.
Hans Asperger first described the clinical findings that are today associated with Asperger syndrome in a workshop on 3rd October 1938, published as a 4,000 word article Asperger (1938) Das psychisch abnorme Kind. Wiener Klinische Wochenschrift, 49:1314-1317. In English this would be “The psychically abnormal child”, although it might equally be another term such as “mentally” if translated today. The following summarises the content .
Hans Asperger published his first paper on autism in 1938 in German in the journal Wiener Klinische Wochenschrift [The Vienna Clinical Weekly], five years before Leo Kanner’s first publication in 1943 in English. These were by no means the first papers about “autism“, because the term was already used in the description of schizophrenia by Eugen Bleuler in German in 1913. Four strands of work – about autism and schizophrenia, in German and English – continued to both enhance and confuse the understanding of autism for decades. Most notably Asperger’s 1938 contribution was ignored as the pre-war prominence of Viennese medicine gave way to post-war shame and disgrace.
The transformation of “autism” from a predominantly German term in schizophrenia, to the predominantly English term we undersatnd is summarised well in the word-frequency plot of the publication sequence.
I recently went on a charming little journey through time to track down a quote attributed to the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), “we do not feel horror because we are haunted by a sphinx, we dream a sphinx in order to explain the horror that we feel”. The context and the journey through references adds beautifully to my earlier post about dreams and nightmares. Coleridge was disturbed by his nightmares throughout his life and shared his thoughts about their origins.