The Times has seen fit to devote a leader column to the subject:
To use the term “autism” and “autistic” in a derogatory or flippant manner can cause deep hurt to those affected by the condition. To use the term as a criticism, for dramatic effect or to try to gain political advantage, perpetuates the misunderstanding of this condition and is, as the National Autistic Society said yesterday, “extremely unhelpful”.
I agree with every word.
But what puzzles me is that the editorial makes no mention of the only noteworthy use in recent years by a British politician of the same term “in a derogatory or flippant manner… for dramatic effect or to try to gain political advantage”. I mean George Osborne’s suggestion in October 2006 that Gordon Brown was “mildly autistic”.
Anyone who follows politics reasonably closely, as Times leader writers most certainly do, will remember this. Yet not a mention of this episode.
And back in 2006? Well, the Times found space to cover the row that resulted. It found space for not one but two columns by Mary Ann Sieghart, the Times columnist who originally elicited Osborne’s comment and who then sought to excuse the episode:
It felt like an innocent, if slightly tasteless, joke, and I thought no more of it.
What, precisely, was the problem here? Were genuinely autistic people offended to have been compared with the Chancellor? And why should it be such a sin anyway to be “faintly autistic”?
But there was not a peep of disapproval from the paper’s leader column. Perhaps they’re now making amends.