What do you do when a professional or educator uses a term referring to disability in a disrespectful way? Not maliciously, but inappropriately.
It happens all the time. Even the most seasoned advocates are often left speechless.
Kymberly DeLoatche found herself in that position recently. She is the mother of two and a longtime professional advocate. During her son’s IEP meeting, the lead special education teacher said, “I just love our aut babies.” The teacher was referring to her middle school students with autism.
Since DeLoatche’s son has Down syndrome, not autism, she wasn’t sure how to react. So she turned to social media to see how her friends felt about the statement. Reactions varied drastically.
Several parents took offense to the teacher using the term babies when referring to teens and pre-teens. They were concerned that she doesn’t see the students’ full potential. They wondered if all she sees is autism.
“Not babies!!!” one mother and advocate declared.
“I hear the ‘babies’ word as a red flag. They are not babies. Is that how they are viewed? So lowered performance expectations? … We have such a rich vocabulary from which to draw as educators. This teacher should not be teaching in a middle school. No excuses,” voiced one friend.
Another mom said, “It certainly isn’t how MY 14-year-old would like to be referred as. Sadly, I’ve heard so much worse, makes this seem almost tame.”
Many felt the reference was completely unprofessional, demeaning, demoralizing, and condescending. A few suggested training for that teacher to better understand how to connect with parents and children affected by disability.
But just as many believed the teacher meant no harm. One mother said, “I’ve seen kids with disabilities called way worse, so in comparison this is mild. Maybe she is just blunt? … Although I personally would never use the term aut baby; I’ve been guilty of calling my own ‘my spectrum-y kids’.”
Another friend said, “I would cut the teacher some slack. There are worse names to be called and at least she didn’t express distaste, as some do.”
One educator pointed out that the term “aut” is used all of the time in schools as an abbreviation for autism. Aut class, aut room, aut lesson – those expressions are on par with using ID for intellectual disability or LD for learning disability. However, she added that she would never use the term “aut” when referring to a person. She is a strong believer in person-first language.
DeLoacthe’s query triggered other parents to share some of their own uncomfortable conversations with school staff. One mother, whose child has Down syndrome, wrote, “My daughter’s assistant principal went on and on at our last meeting about how my daughter surprised him by having ‘normal’ interactions with ‘normal’ kids, and acting like a ‘normal’ student. He was amazed at how far she has come and how the other kids see her just as a ‘normal’ student. As any ‘normal’ mother, I felt like I wanted to kill him. I know that he was coming from a good place and trying to be encouraging even, but he is an educator and in a leadership position, so he should know better!”
Another mom shared, “When [my daughter] first started preschool, we heard the school secretary, an older lady, referring to my daughter’s classroom as the ‘retarded babies.’ She intended it as loving and it seemed a plain statement of fact to her and she clearly visited the class and through the kids were adorable, but clearly ‘other.’”
A few people stressed that when things like this happen, it’s up to us turn it into a teaching moment. One long time advocate and mother said, “I agree that you need to think about the intent and give the person credit if they speak with a loving heart. BUT things never change unless we address comments like that. Kindly, professionally, but firmly.”