It is commonly debated whether people should be saying “autistic person” (identity first language; IFL) or “person with autism” (people first language; PFL). There is much debate within the disability community and the sectors within it regarding which language to use when referring to those on the autism spectrum. It is important to understand disability language and which expressions are and are not offensive.
Person with Autism (Person-First Language; PFL)
Historically, the use of person-first language has been the more favored approach, especially by the scientific/medical community, parents, providers, and advocates of those on the spectrum. PFL is essentially citing the diagnosis as something a person “has” rather than something the person is at their core, which promotes that a person is not defined by their disability. “Person with disabilities” or “person with autism” is an example of person-first language, versus calling someone a “disabled person” or “autistic person”.
At face value, using person-first language makes sense and is a clear attempt to be as respectful as possible with words. Similarly, we do not say things like “schizophrenics”, “my cancerous grandma”, or “my learning-disabled brother”. These expressions are cringe-worthy, and many people argue that calling someone an “autistic person” can be construed as the same.
Autistic Person (Identity-First Language; IFL)
Although the scientific/medical community initially established person-first identity (i.e., people with autism), some on the autism spectrum began promoting identify-first language with a strong preference to be called “autistic person”. This movement came in 2005 when a group called the Aspies for Freedom established Autistic Pride Day which is a worldwide celebration held annually on June 18th. The purpose of Autistic Pride Day is to honor, recognize, and accept the strengths and accomplishments of those on the spectrum rather than stigmatizing autism as something that needs to be treated or “fixed”.
The Autistic Pride celebration, and using identify-first language in general, is about reframing the negative perception of needing to “cure” autism. For example, when a doctor refers to a patient as having cancer or a person with cancer, they label the disease as something the patient has rather than who they are, and the overarching goal is to cure the patient of their cancer. On the flip side, those on the spectrum can often be proud of their autism and advocate strongly against being “cured” or “fixed”. Rather, the viewpoint is that our norms of how a person should and shouldn’t behave need to be eliminated in order to embrace the diverse characteristics of those on the spectrum.
Which Expression Should We Use?
Based on the above information, it can still be tricky to determine which expression is correct and appropriate to use. A dive into recent research also shows mixed results in preference depending on whether you are speaking to someone on the spectrum versus someone closely connected to someone on the spectrum. A survey conducted in March 2022 by the digital resource Autistic Not Weird polled more than 11,000 people with or connected to ASD. Over 76% of respondents favored IFL (being called, “autistic person”). However, parents of children on the spectrum leaned toward PFL (having their children be called, “person with autism”) as they feared IFL would label and limit their children.
Because autism is a spectrum and the experiences of living with autism can range so widely, it makes sense that those on the spectrum and those connected to autism may have differing preferences on how to describe the autism identity. The best recommendation would be to ask an individual what their preference is. When speaking about autism, try your best to be mindful of the words you are using so that we are promoting acceptance. Language can be powerful, and we must be intentional, respectful and mindful about the words we use.
2022, CaptainQuirk Autism 23 March. “Results and Analysis of the Autistic Not Weird 2022 Autism Survey.” Autistic Not Weird, 4 Oct. 2022, https://autisticnotweird.com/autismsurvey/.
DeVault, Nancy. “‘Autistic’ vs. ‘Person with Autism’: Let’s Talk about Disability Language.” The Latest National Disability News, 10 Mar. 2023, https://www.ameridisability.com/autistic-vs-person-with-autism-lets-talk-about-disability-language/.