Should Person-First Language Be Used When Discussing Autism?

The semantics of autism can be a significant issue; here's why.

autism is controversial
autism is controversial.

"Person First" Language versus "Identity First" Language

According to the Inclusion Project, "A disability descriptor is simply a medical diagnosis ;People First Language respectfully puts the person before the disability;and a person with a disability is more like people without disabilities than different!"  A "person first" chart on their website provides specific guidance about just how to refer to a person with a disability in many different circumstances.

Meanwhile, while acknowledging the purpose of "person first" language (to emphasize the humanity of the individual as opposed to their diagnosis), autism self-advocate Lydia Brown writes: "In the autism community, many self-advocates and their allies prefer terminology such as "Autistic," "Autistic person," or "Autistic individual" because we understand autism as an inherent part of an individual's identity -- the same way one refers to "Muslims," "African-Americans," "Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender/Queer," "Chinese," "gifted," "athletic," or "Jewish."

Clearly, both of these points of view result from serious-minded thought about the nature of humanness and disability.  Neither is glib, neither intends any level of disrespect. 

Which Option Is Best?

So...  who is right?

Of course, there's no correct answer.  And, like everything else in the world of autism, the choice of terminology depends upon the circumstances.  It's not the case that EVERY person with autism prefers to be called "autistic," and certainly it makes sense to ASK if you have that option.

In some settings, too, the term "autistic" is considered taboo -- almost in the same way that racial slurs are taboo.  In such settings, saying "autistic person" is tantamount to picking a fight.  You can say it -- but you'd better be ready to defend your choice!

More significant than the actual choice of words, however, is the philosophical divide that the two options represent. 

In a sense, the term "person with autism" means "this person with autism is just like everyone else except that he or she has a developmental disorder that causes him to sometimes BEHAVE differently.  But really, underneath that behavior, the person with autism is essentially the same as the person with no developmental disorder."

The term "autistic person," however, says something quite different: "this person with autism experiences and responds to the world in ways that are distinct and particular -- and thus this person with autism is NOT just behaving differently -- he or she IS different."

What's Wrong with Being Different?

All this begs the question: "What's wrong with being different?"

Over the millenia, human beings have wrestled with this question. Millions have been slaughtered because of their relative minor "differences" of skin color, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or even gender. Many millions more have been ostracized, denied rights, sterilized, and economically and politically stifled for the same reasons.

In recent decades, however, civil rights for the "different" have increased. Separatism has given way to diversity training.  Uniqueness has become more acceptable, and we have begun to embrace the idea that creativity and "differentness" may be linked.

Best Practices for Autism

Autism, of course, is (as always) a problematic representative of differentness -- because there is no such thing as a prototypical autistic person. While one individual may rejoice in his or her uniqueness, another may wish their autism away.  While one person on the spectrum may be able to build on strengths to achieve their own goals, another may be unable to even engage in the conversation.

While there's no absolutely correct way to speak of autism, there is no doubt that word choice does matter. Whatever choice, or choices, you make, it's important to be aware that you ARE making choices. When speaking of a particular individual, it's certainly best to ask their preference. When (as I am doing now) you're writing for a general audience, you'll need to think through and be ready to explain your own choices.

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