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  • Writer's pictureASW

Oppression and the Acronym

Things have been a bit busy recently. Noticing the need to attend to my own needs and care

hit me with full force and, well, I listened! I have been meeting new social work students, sharing learning about Autism and Neurodiversity generally with social work managers and senior leaders, and making some wonderful new connections. However, enabling learning in others is tiring especially when that learning involves you experiencing and re-living aspects that are difficult or harm you in some way. A reflection perhaps for another time!

One of the things I observed that made me reflect was the use of language to convey and inform but also challenge, both respectfully and oppressively. In particular, I noted the use of acronyms in social media spaces and how they were used differently by different people.

Acronyms are initials for terms or phrases. A shortened version that, theoretically, makes the information accessible. In terms of writing less and conveying meaning. However, as with everything that infers meaning, context is key and who holds that information is crucial to understanding.


Acronym as Identity

Parents and professionals prick up your ears! I see so many children (especially but not exclusively) being introduced as for example "5 year old, ASD. ADHD, SPD" etc like its an attempt to describe via a Scrabble board. Where is their name?!

Why is this needed? We tread a fine line in disputing how our lives are governed by the medical model yet seek to define by the very terminology that pathologises. It's like seeking to gain achievement points on a medical model reward chart.

And as you pile on the letter tiles to this child or adult, you bury them further beneath. Their identity, their personality, and their selves are lost as the list grows longer if that is what you prioritise.

But it also conveys to me a sense that the worth of that child is linked to the process of defining what they are rather than who they are. That their lives revolve around a myriad of assessments and professional discussions rather than what they need, and how they can play, grow, and thrive. Is this what they want? Is this for them, or you? Truthfully?


Shared Meaning?

We fling acronyms around, in both social work and the Neurodivergent communities like they are a universal code, and we all get it. Yet we clearly don’t. Sites that I visit online often have chat that includes people asking what terms mean or being called out for incorrect usage.

I'm not saying that is wrong, but it begs the question of why we assume we should all know this when we use acronyms.

It is a language privilege that holds power over who can use, who can understand and who says who can benefit. We need to acknowledge that.

Then we have acronyms that can mean different things depending on who is using them and in what context.

For example:

AA can mean Actually Autistic, Alcoholics Anonymous, or African American. How about Absolutely Arachnophobic or Awesomely Atypical?

Is it OK to appropriate acronyms? Isn’t it better to just not use it? Do I really need to have ASD, ASC, or AA to just say “I am Autistic”?

You could argue that these are in fact great identifiers that people of the same community can use to quickly connect with each other. Just like symbols. And some of us really do love and need symbols!

But who is using them? Have the predominantly white western voices of the Autistic community culturally appropriated terms to validate our identity without considering intersected identities that actually offer way more insight into who we are?

And, if so, how would we represent that?

I guess there is no easy response however I proceed with caution. I seek not to assume the dominant voice within my community and certainly not as the holder of “truth”.

If we truly want to act anti-oppressively, perhaps the next step is to create a toolkit of choice where judgement and assumption are not part of the process.

And we see that in terms like “spicy” autism and Pervasive Drive for Autonomy (otherwise known as Pathological Demand Avoidance) where individuals and groups strive to reclaim and re-frame the medicalised terms of reference we have absorbed. We are rebelling against the homogeny we are bound by, which persists in stereotyping and myths that translate into poor support and harm.


Stripping Back Oppression

In social work, we use so many acronyms I often get lost myself in the myriad of capital letters. They are hard to process both in written text and speech for me and are often a source of frustration and confusion for people we work with. If someone has to ask you “what does that mean” in a document that is written about them, you have not made your message clear. You have excluded them from their own story.

We really don’t need them you know. They are not always transferable between services (let alone wider systems) and how much energy do they actually save? They are an accessibility bind, for any of us who use technology in some way to communicate, and, to me, it takes so much more time and effort to unpick and process than it's worth.

So let's just say what we mean. In clear accessible language. In plain terms. In relational communication. In value-driven, respectful practice.

I mean, as an AA, ADHD, ND SW with experience in CIN, CP, CIC, PP, PLO, ICO and CO etc planning within an NT TM and SM space regarding HE Msc L & D, not forgetting DEI, I can do this! Right?!

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