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Words Matter: Breaking down the term “red flags”

September 14, 2020  |  Uncategorized  |  By Encompass

Words Matter:  Breaking down the term “red flags” [1] 

Maya Angelou said, “When you know better, you do better.” This is a guiding principle for us at Encompass Pediatric Therapy- as we learn new information from research, societal development, and current events, we are dedicated to doing better. Family at sunset

In an effort to do better, it’s time to refresh the language we use when we suspect someone may have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).  For years, medical professionals have used the term “red flags for Autism”, the Encompass team included. Moving forward, we will no longer be using this language.

Let’s pause and consider the meaning of the term “red flags”.  This inherently means “danger”!  The color red is used to describe extremes, a warning of danger in this case. Think of hearing “code red” in a hospital. The color of a fire extinguisher. Even the editing marks on your high school English paper. Red is often connoted with bad, emergency, error.

When families take the brave and vulnerable step of having their child assessed, it is our professional and ethical role to consider the family’s wellbeing when communicating results. If a family has concerns about their child’s development and is told that their child is exhibiting “red flags” for Autism, IMAGINE how that message is being perceived.  Families likely experience a sense of “there is something wrong with my child”.  When the term “red flags” is used during a conversation with a child’s caregiver, I can only imagine how feelings of fear, anger, guilt, etc. may immediately arise.

If someone uses the phrase “red flags” when referring to Autism, they may be inadvertently sending a message that Autism = bad.  This is not a message we would ever want a caregiver to hear. Autism is one of the many characteristics that may make someone unique.  Someone with Autism may have deficits in some areas, but wonderful strengths in other areas. Each person with Autism and each family who has a child with Autism has their own journey of discovering what Autism means to them.  Beginning this journey with the message of Autism = something bad is definitely “starting out on the wrong foot”. Rather, we at Encompass Pediatric Therapy are dedicated to appreciating neurodiversity- recognizing and respecting neurologic differences in all people. The term “red flag” is clearly not in alignment with this. Because we now know better, we will do better. We will retire “red flags” to the shelf with other antiquated terms we no longer use.

What term should we use instead of “red flags for Autism”?  Many people are using other terms that feel neutral.  How about “indicators”, “behaviors not seen in typical development”, “signs” or “characteristics”?  As a team, we are dedicated to no longer using the phrase “red flags for Autism” again.  We can, and will, do better.

– Encompass Pediatric Therapy

[1] This article was inspired by the work of Lindsey Hockel, MS, CCC-SLP

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