Until today I had never heard of the shortened term "aspie" to refer to someone with Asperger syndrome. While the term strikes me as derogatory and belittling, I'm not a native speaker and obviously have no experience with its usage.

An online search seems to provide no conclusive evidence that it's an offensive term. I've found a few statements from parents of children with the syndrome or mental health workers who claim to use the term. Some say that it can be offensive depending on tone and usage. Yet others say that it shouldn't ever be used.

Is the term "aspie" innately derogatory?

Is there a good chance that some people might take offence at its usage and should I therefore avoid using it?

  • 17
    My personal opinion as an aspie is that I like the term aspie. – gerrit Nov 16 '15 at 12:19
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    It depends. The '-ie ' ending is certainly diminutive. – Mitch Nov 16 '15 at 12:38
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    Basically, it comes down to whether the objects of the epithet use it about themselves. If they do, it could well be fine [cf @gerrit]; if not, it's unlikely to be [my own position]. That, and the fact that two diametrically-opposed answers are possible and equally valid, tend to make the question "Primarily opinion-based". – Andrew Leach Nov 16 '15 at 12:49
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    If you don't know whether it is derogatory, then don't use it yourself. – GEdgar Nov 16 '15 at 15:04
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    @Mitch good point - and diminutives can be used affectionately, and also can be used patronisingly. So I think it's all down to context and how it's used case-by-case - it could be used either way. – user568458 Nov 16 '15 at 15:37

10 Answers 10

As someone with Asperger's, I'm going to take a contrary view to A.P.'s answer.

Wikipedia mentions that Aspie is used amongst sufferers:

People identifying with Asperger syndrome may refer to themselves in casual conversation as aspies (a term first used in print by Liane Holliday Willey in 1999).

Wikipedia

Oxford Dictionaries has a number of examples as well; however none of their examples includes any context, particularly on whether they refer to self-description.

Whether a term is derogatory or not depends a great deal on context. As with any nickname or slang term which highlights a physical feature, it is usually Not OK to use it of others: cf. "Carrot-top", "Fatso", "Four-eyes" and the like — along with other more polarising epithets. Each of these might be used affectionately if one knows the person concerned well enough, particularly if they use the term themselves to self-describe. However to call someone who wears glasses "Four-eyes" without knowing whether they use the term themselves is quite likely to be derogatory.

Thus it's likely to be fine to use the term of someone who self-describes as Aspie, but it is less likely to be acceptable when used by non-sufferers of those whom they do not know will not object.

[As you might guess from this answer, I object.]

  • 3
    a sensible reflexion. +1. – Centaurus Nov 16 '15 at 11:59
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    This is an excellent answer and applies to so many other words and situations. For example, you can't go around calling people "loser" without offending almost everyone you call that, and at the same time I have a good friend who answers the phone "hey, loser!" when I call and I know it's an ironic term of endearment. (I usually reply with "what's up, ugly?") There are many ethnic slurs that people of those ethnicities will call themselves and each other but are offensive if used by someone not of that ethnicity. – Todd Wilcox Nov 16 '15 at 14:46
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    @gerrit I object to someone assuming that I'm ok with being called "aspie" before I've demonstrated that I am. – Andrew Leach Nov 16 '15 at 15:19
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    AndrewLeach Just curious, how do you feel about the use of the word "sufferers"? I was a little surprised to see you use it that way - my understanding was that many people on the spectrum don't like terms like that which make it sound like something that is "wrong" (as opposed to different) – user568458 Nov 16 '15 at 15:42
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    @user568458 I've always said that I don't suffer from it. I have Asperger syndrome. It's those around me who suffer from it! – Andrew Leach Nov 16 '15 at 15:59

To directly answer the question: the word is not inherently derogatory (meaning it does not, in and of itself, carry any negative connotations).

Here is the rationale:

  1. Those with with Asperger's use it extensively of themselves (see this answer.) This applies to everyday speech, blogs, communities, public organizations, etc.

  2. It was never meant to be derogatory (it was first used in print by a doctor who has Asperger herself, her blog is aspie.com). So it's different from the reappropriation of the N-word by the African American community and the N-word reasoning doesn't apply.

  3. It is frequently (and neutrally) used in (popular) medical research articles, especially in its adjectival form ("Aspie mind", "aspie brain", etc), instead of the unwieldy "the mind of a person who has Asperger syndrome" or some such. This is simple convenience, not belittlement.

  4. Not surprisingly, no dictionary marks "aspie" as "derogatory" or "rude". Typically it's marked "informal". Urban Dictionary often marks it "affectionate".

That said, if a specific person doesn't want to be called "aspie" (for whatever reason), don't call them that. It's a matter of honoring their wish.

I don't like the diminutive version of my name (and often ask people not to use it), but it does not follow that the diminutive version of my name is somehow derogatory. The simple fact is it's merely diminutive or informal.


Some sources and further reading:

People identifying with Asperger syndrome may refer to themselves in casual conversation as aspies (a term first used in print by Liane Holliday Willey in 1999).

(Wikipedia)

Aspie (also aspie) n. informal a person with Asperger's syndrome

(Oxford American Dictionary)

  1. An aspie is one who has Asperger's Syndrome... Aspie is an affectionate term, and is not meant as a put down.

  2. This term is an affectionate nickname for those with Asperger's syndrome. It was the idea of parents/relatives of aspies.

(Both snippets taken from Urban Dictionary definitions.)

In addition, consider the definition and examples from Oxford Dictionaries:

aspie: A person with Asperger’s syndrome

Examples:

Cognitive Behavioral therapy is most effective with Aspies because it appeals to their logical nature.

The difference between Asperger's syndrome and the social disorders mentioned above is in the way that Aspies communicate with others.

These examples are obviously not pejorative terms. Judging by their style, they appear to come from some medical research papers, which wouldn't use derogatory terms.

Here is another example from a Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., who is a psychiatrist (apparently dealing with the issue on a regular basis):

Families of those with Asperger’s want to know why their Aspies act the way they do.... Aspies have a huge disconnect between thinking and feeling... No matter how much we explain or teach or train the Aspie mind, certain neurological circuits don’t work as they do in the NT brain.

Two observations:

(A) It would be inconceivable for a person of the medical profession to routinely use a pejorative term in a publication about patients.

(B) In the context of the article, she repeatedly uses "aspie" as a neutral, informal term (and also as a convenient adjective), not as a derogatory term in any way, shape, or form. (My guess is, the adjectival form is here to stay, as the alternative is often unwieldy.)


NOTE: The answer is provided based on my research and experience. To err is human, so if you have evidence to the contrary (dictionary definitions, derogatory usage, etc.), please let me know.

  • 19
    However, it may be a derogatory term when used to refer to others. Just because some Black people may use the N-word amongst themselves doesn't make it acceptable universally (to take a slightly more polarising example). – Andrew Leach Nov 16 '15 at 10:57
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    Valid point, in general. But I don't think it applies here: the term was introduced by Liane Holliday Willey (see link in my answer), who herself suffers from the syndrome. By contrast, the N-word situation is a reappropriation. Originally a derogatory term, the N-word was co-opted by African Americans. – A.P. Nov 16 '15 at 11:08
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    Offense is in the eye/ear of the beholder, which means some may take offense while others may not and others still may say that no one should take offense or everyone should take offense. If the goal of the asker is to minimize their chances of offending people, and we have reason to believe some might take offense (seemingly Andrew Leach, for one), it would probably be best for the asker (and anyone else in a similar situation) to play it safe and not use the word without checking with their audience first. – Todd Wilcox Nov 16 '15 at 14:52
  • @ToddWilcox And yet not a single example of derogatory usage has been provided so far, with many examples to the contrary, including from the Oxford Dictionary, medical research, etc. As far as I can tell from my research, the word is not inherently derogatory (going back to the original question), where "inherently" means the absolute, vast majority of those with the syndrome do not object to the term at all. It doesn't carry negative or insulting connotations, all things being equal. Of course, your tone can turn any word into an insult, but that's beside the point. – A.P. Nov 16 '15 at 18:42
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    I had never heard the term, and after reading all the answers and comments, I think calling someone an aspie without permission is presumptuous -- similar to calling a person named "Charles" by the nickname "Charlie" -- unless he has said "Call me Charlie". Using the diminutive/affectionate term is presumptuous unless you know it is not only tolerated, but welcome, and welcome from you. – ab2 Nov 17 '15 at 19:12

I have Asperger/am aspie myself and I participate quite a bit in asperger-themed chatrooms on IRC. On many of them, people use the word aspie extensively. I do not recall anyone objecting to the usage of this word.

Are there people who dislike the word? Certainly, yes.

Is it a slur? No. If there is a community that is disliked by many Asperger/Autistic people, it would be the people from Autism Speaks and others who consider Asperger/Autism as something to be ”cured”. Those people (sometimes referred to as curebies) do appear to use the word Aspie, but as far as I've heard this has not led to Asperger/Autistic people to dislike the word Aspie when used by non-Aspies.

A different word for Aspergers that is considered insulting by many would be assburgers.

  • I find the grammar of "I am Asperger" perplexing. Can you explain why you are using the word in that way (as opposed to the other answers, which used it with more normal grammar)? At first glance, it looks like you are introducing yourself. – March Ho Nov 16 '15 at 13:08
  • @MarchHo I think it's used as an adjective here, the same way as term we're discussing can be used. – A.P. Nov 16 '15 at 13:22
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    @MarchHo I am aware that standard grammar would be "I have Asperger", but I prefer to use [to be], because it is not a state that changes, but rather a fundamental property of my being. – gerrit Nov 16 '15 at 14:19
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    @MarchHo Maybe to have and to be don't imply anything and my idea is wrong. – gerrit Nov 16 '15 at 14:45
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    @gerrit: at least in English there's something in what you're saying. It would be incredibly offensive to say someone "has homosexuality syndrome" rather than saying they "are gay", so if you're looking to "own" your identity rather than describe a "condition" then to me it makes sense to prefer "to be" over "to have". Then again, I say "I am short-sighted" in preference to "I have short-sightedness", and I very much don't feel that to be an important part of my identity. So it's a weak effect of language. – Steve Jessop Nov 17 '15 at 4:06

The issue with the euphemism treadmill is that the thing referred to is itself either denigrated (racial epithets, "retarded", "fat", etc.), or taboo (terms related to sex, genitals, or bodily waste). (Homosexuals got hit from both sides of that.)

"Reclaiming" such a term requires fighting back against the prejudice or taboo involved. The "homosexual community" managed to more or less pull that off, but I've still heard "homosexual" pronounced in tones that made it an epithet for the occasion. Similarly, American blacks are working on battling the prejudices against them. But among themselves they sometimes use the n-word as an insult too... basically referring to those black folks who live down to the worst stereotypes, rather than living up to their communities' pride.

"Aspie" could have gone the epithet route, except for a historical accident: The period when Asperger's syndrome and later the autistic spectrum became popularized... just happened to match the rise of "geek culture". Suddenly computer programmers and other geeks started showing up as millionaires and billionares (not to mention CEOs), fancy technology became a status symbol, and in general, "nerds" became "cool". And as it happens, the "nerd/geek" stereotype more or less is the Aspie stereotype....

When I (high-functioning autistic) first encountered the word Aspie on an online forum in the late 1990s, I thought it was a silly word, and there was no way in hell I'd call myself an Aspie. The term grew on me a little since then, but my reaction is still more or less the same: it's an informal, silly term. If a medical professional were to use this term (as in A.P.'s answer above), I would think that they are trying (maybe a little too hard?) to be relatable. If someone not on the spectrum, and not associated with the autism/autistic communities, were to use the term Aspie, I would be taken aback a little, but not at all offended. Again, intent matters, but I consider "Aspie" to be too soft of a term to really be offensive, even if the user was trying to offend.

Are there people who take offense to being called Aspies and find it derogatory? Absolutely, but I've run across comparatively few of them in my three decades in the autism community. Are there people on the autism spectrum who don't feel the label is appropriate because they technically don't have Asperger's per se? Yes, and arguably I am one of them, although I don't really take offense to being called an Aspie. You might offend a few people here or there, but the word Aspie is not generally accepted to be offensive.

In short, as long as you mean no offense, it's okay to use the word Aspie, assuming the context is informal, casual, and comfortable.

  • Thank you, you input was valuable to me (and doubtless others), and helped me better understand the issue. +1. – A.P. Nov 17 '15 at 20:49

I must disagree with all the comments about Person First Language.

Although this seems to be the trend for most other disability communities, the phrase "Person With Autism" is generally frowned upon in the autistic community. We tend to call ourselves Autistic, and not People With Autism. Naturally, there are people on both sides of this issue in the autistic community, as there are for pretty much any issue, but the prevailing opinion is that Autistic is fine and People With Autism is more offensive.

The opponents of Person First Language here do, in fact, view autism as their identity, not just a condition they have. Also see comparisons within the Deaf community.

Because the Autistic community rejects Person First Language, I will recommend against it in this case, because they should have the right to be called what they want to be called.

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    Yes. "People with Autism" pathologizes us. – Trevel Nov 17 '15 at 19:41

I would say it's the same as with other (possibly) derogatory words, it depend on who is using it and in what context. It also depends on intent, if you say, "you #¤%¤ing <possibly derogatory word>" then that word is probably used with an intention of being derogatory.

For example the "n-word" is (by some) used in colloquial conversation between African-Americans, but would be considered derogatory used by a white person.

And when in doubt, don't use possibly derogatory words, better safe than sorry.

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    By starting with "it's the same as with other derogatory words", you've assumed what you need to prove. You are reasoning in a circle. – A.P. Nov 16 '15 at 13:41
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    @A.P. But language IS circular: it inherently means what we intend by the use of a word. This is why a neutral term inevitably becomes negative: as soon as one person uses it negatively, it becomes tainted. Euphemisms cannot be saved, as evidenced by the progression of terms like toilet, lavatory, washroom, bathroom, restroom... until the original meaning is entirely beyond shouting distance (rest in the toilet?). Handicapped - originally a very respectful usage - became tainted also. There is no way to prevent this from happening. Because words are just noises, they don't mean anything. – user126158 Nov 16 '15 at 14:54
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    Rather than the ”n-word”, how would you classify the word ”gay”? – gerrit Nov 16 '15 at 15:01
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    @no comprende I call that The Euphemism Treadmill: >Being "crippled" is a bad thing, so you can't call someone that. Say "handicapped" instead. >Being "handicapped" is a bad thing, so you can't call someone that. Say "disabled" instead. >Being "disabled" is a bad thing, so you can't call someone that. Say _______ (either "differently-abled" or "____-challenged"; there doesn't seem to be agreement here) instead. As soon as people figure out what the euphemism means, it is in need of a "neuphemism". – Monty Harder Nov 16 '15 at 16:51
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    ... that said, as soon as children in playgrounds get their hands on a term for something they consider bad, there's a real risk they'll succeed in turning it into a slur no matter how dignified it was to start with. – Steve Jessop Nov 17 '15 at 4:24

The term “Aspie” was first introduced by Liane Holliday Willey in 1999 in her book ‘Pretending to be Normal: Living with Asperger's Syndrome’ She also wrote one of the first autobiographies by a women with Aspergers and therefore please embrace the term as it was meant, which is in a positive light.

While I agree with the majority of answers that the term is often not intentionally malicious and that many use it to self-identify, there is a strong shift away from using nouns with meanings of the form person with [disability or medical condition], especially for conditions that have historically been subject to ridicule or exclusion, usually on the grounds that it frames the condition as the center of the person's identity rather than just an aspect. I was thinking about making a list of examples that are clearly considered offensive nowadays, but that would probably be gratuitous.

Whether intentionally derogatory or not, referring to person by that person's disease is somewhat dehumanizing, and generally frowned upon by people in the position of working with those that have disabilities.

I encourage you to use "People First Language" -- http://www.disabilityisnatural.com/explore/people-first-language

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    Do note that the Aspie community frequently finds "People first language" far more offensive than calling us "aspies". – Trevel Nov 17 '15 at 19:10
  • @Trevel, I stand corrected, and thank you for enlightening me. That said, now so guided, a google search quickly reveals some contention here between a bunch of communities. Some of the arguments against are "people-first language just sounds silly", and others are more identity based, involving the role autism can have in self-identity. I suppose that my safe space training as to not forcing labels on people applies here. – Scott Seidman Nov 17 '15 at 22:27
  • All that said, I work with many different people with many different issues, and you would be surprised how easy it is to start thinking in ways that reduce people to their issues and conditions. I'll continue to exercise people-first language because I find it useful to remind myself of such issues and keep myself off of a slippery slope. – Scott Seidman Nov 17 '15 at 22:30
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    in the international affairs arena, our rationale behind saying "people with disabilities" is to separate the person-ness from the disability, denoting that the one is not subsumed by the other. It's the same reasoning behind why we employ "women who are victims of (crime)" rather than "women victims" (or worse "female victims"), to separate their person-ness from the thing that happened to them that qualifies them but does not define them. Plus it's more easily translatable. That said, I understand the resistance to person first language. It can certainly make for cumbersome phrases. – cmcf Nov 18 '15 at 5:05
  • This isn't about ease of use. This is about the connotations you are creating. For obvious reasons, it is entirely inappropriate to say "people with homosexuality." Homosexuality is not a disease which can or should be cured, but a defining and enduring characteristic. At least part of the autism(-spectrum) community feels similarly. When in doubt, I would recommend asking the person you're talking about what they want you to call them. – Kevin Nov 18 '15 at 6:58

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