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Is the Term “Autistic Savant” Politically Correct?

A person who works in education, psychology, counseling, medicine or a related field may want to know, “Is the term ‘autistic savant’ politically correct?” The answer to this question is a resounding, “No.” The deeper answer gets into several topics of interest that anyone who plans to work with people with disabilities should know.

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Characteristics of Autism

Autism is a spectrum. Some people with the diagnosis have mild symptoms across a few categories, while others have one or more areas of severe symptoms. Some of the characteristics of autism include difficulty with communications, trouble relating to others, excessive focus on a narrow topic of interest and uneven cognitive skills. Not all people with autism will exhibit all of these characteristics. For some people with autism, one of their symptoms can stand out more from the others.

Definition of “Savant”

A “savant” means a sage or learned person. It comes from the French word “savoir,” which means “to know.” There is an old expression, “idiot savant,” that is both imprecise and pejorative. The term “autistic savant” was used to replace it. When people use the term “autistic savant,” they are referring to a person with autism who has an incredible skill in a very particular cognitive area. For example, the term was often used to describe a person with autism who could hear one of Beethoven’s symphonies one time and be able to play it from memory with no music and no training. It was also used to describe a person with immense mathematical abilities, who could do extremely complicated calculations in their head in a quick manner.

People-first Language

Since the 2000s, there has been a turn to using people-first language. Instead of referring to the disability, disorder or disease, the person is described first. This is because a person is much more than their condition, disorder or disease. Some descriptors have also fallen into disfavor because of their disparaging qualities. For example, the term “crippled” used to be used for people who were unable to walk without assistance or at all. Today, there is a clear emphasis on people-first language. For example, instead of “autistic boy,” the person-first language would be “boy with autism.” This tells others that the boy is more than his diagnosis.

What Savant Syndrome Is

According to the United States National Library of Medicine, mental health and medical professionals have defined a condition called “savant syndrome.” This definition replaces some of the older terminology that is now widely regarded as offensive and derogatory to people. Savant syndrome is defined as a condition in which a person who has a serious mental disability is able to have an island of genius that is in marked contrast to their other cognitive skills.

Understanding people-first language is essential to success in an area of work such as psychology, education or medicine. While some people think that others are “too sensitive” or “snowflakes” when it comes to labels, a social change involving not putting up with insults or derogatory labels has taken place over recent years. A person who plans to work with people who have autism should know the answer to, “Is the term ‘autistic savant’ politically correct?” and be able to explain to others why that term should have been retired years ago.