What’s Wrong with Labels?

People can’t help but label other people. Our fundamental labels of “friend” or “foe” are essential to basic survival, and the rest lead on from there. Subconsiously, we are asking ourselves “is this person going to hurt me?” or “is this person someone I want to become acquainted with?” or “is this person a potential partner?” In order to answer these questions, and calculate the potential threat-levels posed by other people (on all kinds of levels), we first work out how well they match with us: we look at their appearance, education, the way they speak, age, clothes, jobs, their interests, etc. And we label them in our minds. Ask anyone to describe the person sitting next to them, and s/he’ll say something like, “she’s thirty-something, brown hair, well dressed, middle manager…” or whatever. S/he can’t describe her in any other way. S/he has to use labels.

The problem arises when people apply the wrong label. And I fall foul of this as much as anyone else: a mother at my children’s former school spoke in a particularly clipped manner, which I interpreted as snobbery (the wrong label). I disliked her just for that reason. When someone told me she was foreign (the right label) – a fact that had been impossible to see through her impeccable English accent – my whole attitude towards her changed.

So, having said all that, some people worry that I allow myself to be defined by the “autistic label”, but on the basis that I’ll never stop people sticking labels on me, I much prefer to be called “autistic” than all the other (mostly erroneous) descriptives I’ve had stuck on me over the years.

So, there’s nothing wrong with labels, but there’s a awful lot wrong with the wrong labels.

Typical Autistic Characteristics How Society Chooses to Label Them How Society Could Label Them
Uncoordinated cackhanded restricted proprioception
Keeping oneself to oneself unsociable private
Stimming retarded harmless
Doesn’t get the joke thick differently humoured
Laughs more loudly than others annoying gets your joke
Says the “wrong thing” rude mistaken
Identifies ways to improve critical helpful
Doesn’t understand teasing oversensitive differently humoured
Prefers not to make eye contact creepy/guilty retiring
Likes routine and organisation awkward organised
Free thinking dissenting thinks outside the box
Keeps odd hours weird polyphasic
Wears comfortable clothing scruffy self-caring
Interested in detail pernickety attentive
Uncertain of how to interact standoffish shy
Interested nosy interested
Trusting gullible trusting
Honest tactless trustworthy
Sticks to the rules dogmatic law-abiding
Keen to share ideas opinionated contributing
Happy to talk about interests boring sharing
Prone to anxiety weak has a lot going on
Likes to plan ahead fussy organised
Wary of others paranoid bullied
Hypersensitive to light/noise/etc. intolerant more tolerant than you will ever know

Please help by not perpetuating negative terms, but by encouraging positive terms instead.

©2012 Life on the Spectrum


8 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with Labels?”

  1. Love your list and must remember to use some of these when talking to myself, instead of defaulting to negative self-talk.
    I wrote a blog post about labels too! Just wanted to share. ;)

    [Click on Leonie’s name to see her post about labels –Ed]

  2. I believe when it comes to having Asperger’s, being given the correct label can be half the problems solved. Once you have a label, a respectful one but one that defines the problem, you have already identified what that person’s problems are.

    There’s nothing worse than going to the doctor with chest pains and the doctor hasn’t a clue what’s going on in the body. However if the doctor makes a correct diagnosis they can provide the right medication to help cure the condition. The same applies with Asperger’s. Once someone has been diagnosed, they know, and the rest of us can know, what help we can give that person.

  3. I always say that labels tell you what’s inside. You wouldn’t buy a box that didn’t have a label on it, would you? You’d have no idea whether it contained a television or a bunch of rocks.

    • That’s a great analogy; I completely agree. I totally understand why people don’t want the wrong label, but the right label can be liberating!

  4. When I told my brother that I thought I have Asperger’s he asked, “why do you want to label yourself?” I couldn’t answer at the time, but I wish I could have shown him this blog post. Because I have had so many hurtful ‘labels’ over the years (most of the ones in the middle row!) and coming to this (for me, new) world of self-advocacy and disabled rights I’m getting to replace those negative, judgmental labels with positive, accepting ones. That makes me feel better about myself and nicer and more understanding about other people. It’s a win-win situation!

Comments are closed.