This post is part of a series for Autism Acceptance Month in which I will be exploring various ideas and subjects relating to autism and being autistic.
Most people, when first learning about autism, are taught that you must always use person-first language, i.e. Sabrina is a person with autism. However, while this language is frequently touted as the most respectful way of talking about autism, most autistic people actually prefer identity-first language, i.e. Sabrina is autistic. Today we are going to explore why identity-first language is the best way to refer to autistic people.
The main argument for using person-first language is that you need to put the person first to emphasize that autistic people are people first and autistic second. However, much of the autistic community finds this logic troubling. People should not need to manipulate language to remember that we are people. The verbal gymnastics people go through to use person-first language is, frankly, insulting. It insinuates that if you didn’t say person first that you would forget that we are people. We don’t say that Anne is a person with femaleness. We say that Anne is a woman. We know that Anne is a person. We don’t need to specifically state that she is a woman to remind people of her personhood, rather when we say that Anne is a woman it is understood that Anne is also a person.
Further, Autism is an intrinsic part of who we are. It affects how our brains develop from birth and shapes who we are as people. I am who I am because I am autistic. My autism is not some accessory that I carry along with me. It is not a layer of autism on top of a neurotypical person. Autism is fundamentally linked to who I am. Using person-first language implies that my autism is something separate from me when that is very far from the truth. Identity-first language acknowledges that autism is a central part of who I am as a person.
On top of this, using identity-first language positions autism as another one of my identities. Just as being nonbinary, white, an activist, and bisexual, being autistic is a large part of my identity. Saying that I am autistic, similarly to saying that I am white, makes autism a part of my identity rather than something separate that could be removed from me. If I were not autistic, I would be an entirely different person as all of my experiences in life and the perspectives I have gained have been through the lens of autism. It has shaped every bit of who I am and as such should be acknowledged as a part of my identity.
Additionally, by trying to separate autism from the person, it implies that autism is something bad or shameful. Rather than positioning autism as an identity, which is neither inherently good nor bad, person-first language tries to separate the person from autism as if it were something bad that one should desire to have removed. Ignoring the fact that there is no way to cure autism and likely never will be aside from the “cure” of eugenics, even if a cure were available, there are large numbers of autistic people who would not want a cure. Imagine if someone offered to cure you of your personality and everything about yourself. Would you accept? Would you want to change everything about who you are? If not, then why do you expect that autistic people do? There are certainly negative aspects of being autistic, but there are also positives, just as there are positives and negatives to being neurotypical.
In summation, if you want to be respectful of the autistic community, please use identity-first language. If an autistic person that you know prefers person-first language, then refer to that person in the way they would prefer to be referred to, but for the rest of the autistic community please use identity-first language. To finish this, I will provide some examples of person-first and identity-first language to help with navigating the pitfalls of this language.
- Sabrina is a person with autism
- Sabrina has autism
- People with autism
- People who are afflicted by autism
- People who suffer from autism
- People who happen to have autism
- Sabrina is autistic
- Sabrina is an autistic person
- Autistic people