Linh Nguyen

Language used to discuss autism

Which is correct: an autistic person or a person with autism?

I was spending the first week of my internship reading blogs, scientific papers, or articles. Things were going well, I was easing myself into the structure of a 9 to 5. 

The first diagnosis of autism occurred in 1943, yet 78 years later, we fail to reach an agreement on the preferred method of addressing autism. You might think that 78 years would be enough time for us to reach some kind of consensus, but alas here we are today forever debating. 

Why is it so difficult for us to reach an agreement? 

Kenny et al., (2016) attribute this tension to three specific reasons: the varied ways in which autism affects individuals’ lives; the incongruence within the scientific community; the rise of movements relating to disability rights and neurodiversity. 

With so many different groups head-butting one another over which terms they prefer, we are forced stagnant with regards to the use of language when talking about autism. However, this needs to be resolved as soon as possible for language plays a large role in shaping societal attitudes. Thus, if we want to generate a positive societal attitude on autism, we must first solve this point of tension.   

At this point, you’re probably going: what even is the difference? Don’t both terms essentially refer to the same notion? Well, the simple answer is: yes, they refer to the same idea; no for they do not have the same implication. Let me explain why. 

The term autistic person falls under the umbrella of identity-first language (some examples being: autistic individuals, is autistic). Meanwhile, the phrase person with autism employs person-first language (further example: individuals with autism spectrum disorder, people with autism). 

Let’s discuss person-first language. 

I tend to describe person-first language as having good intentions but poorly executed. Person-first language is highly favored by professionals (i.e: researchers) and parents of autistic people. This language systematically separates the person from the condition. Or in other words, it puts the person before their autism, through which it attempts to emphasize the humanity in the person. As an underlying implication, it refers to autism as something that is detrimental to the value and worth of a person, hence, seeing autism as something inherently bad. 

I recognise the seemingly good-hearted intentions behind person-first language. It attempts to assimilate autistic people into society through removing their diagnosis from them. As autism can be perceived as something negative, a stigma, through distancing the individual from their condition, the person-first language attempts to make autistic individuals as ‘normal’ as possible. The premise is: this individual is a person before his condition. He or she should not be judged based on his or her condition. 

Despite the somewhat good-hearted intentions, here is why I find this language problematic. I simply cannot understand why there is the need to highlight the humanity in autistic people, their value, and worth in order for these individuals to seem human. What is not human about them? It essentially tells an autistic person that their condition is something offensive, that they should somehow hide it to be as human as possible. Therefore, rather than trying to reduce the loom over stigma, it further instills a negative connotation with autism. It tells autistic people that this condition is something that they shouldn’t be proud of. As Jim Sinclair perfectly states, “saying ‘person with autism’ suggests that autism is something bad–so bad that it isn’t even consistent with being a person.” Progressive? I argue not.  

Moving onto identity-first language 

By now, you should figure out that I prefer the use of identity-first language. The decision is one that comes quite straightforward to me. But before I get ahead of myself, let me first give you a breakdown of identity-first language.

This language is endorsed by self-advocates (autistic people) and their allies due to the reason that it recognizes and validates that autism is an inherent part of an individual’s identity. Upon reading numerous blogs written by autistic people, one component remains consistent: the agreement that autism is a part of their identity and something that they take pride in. Another way in which identity-first language affirms the notion that autism is a pervasive and meaningful component of one’s identity is through the placement of the positive pronoun (autistic) in front of the noun. Therefore, rather than seeing autism as something shameful and bad, it simply accepts that autistic individuals are just different. 

Here are my simple two cents: if autistic self-advocates state that identity-first language is what they prefer, what is stopping you and me - the neurotypicals (non-autistic individuals) - from respecting that? As Patrick from AutisticScholar Blog said: “we [autistic people] have the right to choose their own identity terms, and others have the duty to respect their preferences.” If we can do this for other groups of people, why can’t we apply the same principle to the autistic community? 

If you want to read up more on the different arguments on the use of person-first vs. identity-first language, I invite you to read through the list compiled by autistichoya.