There has long been a push by certain autism advocates to favor “person-first” language. Someone is a “person with autism,” not an “autistic person.” The idea behind this is to reduce stigma. A person is more than their diagnosis — a fact that has historically been overlooked, particularly in the case of autism. Many autistic people are dehumanized due to atypical or limited communication styles.
Caretakers and relatives of these individuals tend to feel strongly about this. While advocating for their loved ones, they hear comments that might not be said to an autistic person’s face. They want to emphasize the humanity of their loved one’s humanity, and that makes sense. Autism Speaks, one of the most well-known autism advocacy groups in the US, exclusively used person-first language until very recently.
On the other hand, autistic individuals themselves tend to prefer identity-first language. Even Autism Speaks’ own poll on the topic showed a considerable preference for identity-first language (69% preferred identity-first vs. 31% preferring person-first). A larger UK study of 3,470 people also showed that autistic individuals themselves preferred identity-first language, while professionals and family members preferred person-first.
This raises the question: why do so many autistic people disagree with their family, caretakers, and even professionals about the language used for them? Why wouldn’t they want to put their personhood before their autism? Don’t they worry about being reduced to their diagnosis? The answer lies in both personal experience and treatment concerns.
Many autistic people feel that their autism is intrinsic to who they are. The way they interact with the world and the way they think is, to them, completely inseparable from themselves. Person-first language can feel like their experiences are being treated as a footnote. There’s nothing embarrassing or shameful about being autistic. It’s not all they are, but it’s certainly an inherent part of their background.
The implications of autism being separate from the individual can be dangerous as well. When someone is called a “person with autism”, the person and the autism are conceptualized as two separate things. Proponents of person-first language also happen to be interested in finding a “cure” for autism. Many autistic people resent this. Autism is inherent to who they are and cannot be taken away without losing the person attached to it.
Identity-first language is a way for autistic people to describe their experiences on their own terms. As the world gains more autistic voices, it simply makes sense to listen to them, rather than the opinions and presumptions of people who are not autistic themselves.
However, this is far from a solved debate. While the majority preference is for identity-first language, there are people within the community who prefer person-first language. The reasons for this are varied, but these preferences should not be dismissed either. The community is not a monolith.
Ultimately, the answer is to listen to people directly, whether they call themselves “autistic people” or “people with autism.” If someone asks you to call them a person with autism, the compassionate response is always to use the language that the person prefers.
Why do we still insist on defaulting to non-preferred language? Would it not be more compassionate, reasonable, and kind to listen to autistic people first?
If so, it may be time to reconsider the current default to person-first language.