There is much discussion and debate about what language to use when discussing autistic people (or, people with autism). It essentially comes down to the different implications of the use of “identity-first” or “person-first” language.
Identity-first or Person-first
At its core, the difference between person-first language and identity-first language is which word leads when someone describes autism:
- Person-first puts the person first: “person with autism”
- Identify-first puts the aspect of identity first: “autistic person”
Many parents and professionals insist that others use person-first language, out of respect. They argue that people should not be “defined by their disability” and that they are people first.
However, as many autistic self-avocates point out, the use of person-first language can convey a sense of shame in being autistic, as if autism needs to be made secondary to their “personhood.” Zoe from Illusion of Competence provides this example to illustrate the point:
I would also describe myself as a long-haired woman. So far no one has come forward to demand that I instead refer to myself as “an individual with long hair,” or accused me of “defining myself by my hair length.”
Zoe continues that person-first language conveys another misconception of autism: that it is detachable from the person. She states in the title of her post, “autism is not an accessory.”
Finding a Language Balance
I strongly believe that when working with and discussing a marginalized group—particularly one which is talked about by others not in the group, such as myself—allies must prioritize the wishes of the members of the group itself. And in my experience, the vast majority of autistic individuals I’ve worked with and read about would rather be referred to as “autistic” as opposed to “a person with autism.”
Lydia X. S. Brown at Autistic Hoya puts it simply and well:
Many of us prefer to be called Autistic or Autistic people, and if you are talking to someone who prefers to be called Autistic, you should also respect their preferences in referring to themself, and call that person Autistic. Everyone has the right to decide how they would like to be described, and you should respect that right.
As I’ve discussed in Balance Challenge posts, striking a balance doesn’t always mean going right into the middle of two extremes; not all compromises result in a 50/50 split of what two sides want. In blog posts on this site, I do use both phraseologies interchangeably, but consciously use identity-first language more frequently.
From the Source
Finally and most importantly, rather than listen to me, a neurotypcial, spout off on the topic, I encourage you to read some of the many terrific pieces on language by autistic folk themselves. In addition to those cited above, here are some other great essays on this topic:
- Jim Sinclair’s 1999 Piece, Why I Dislike Person-First Language
- Autism Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN), Identity-First Language
- John Elder Robison What Does it Mean to say I’m Autistic