An autistic opinion on the ongoing debate of using person-first vs. identity-first language
In the neurodivergent world, there is conflict over terminology when referring to someone that is autistic. The concept of identity-first language versus person-first language is a metaphorical battlefield of what is politically correct. Two terms commonly debated are autistic versus a person with autism.
Person first supporters say that autism is a disability and should not be referred to as an identity. In contrast, supporters of validating the autistic experience say that identity-first language is vital to self-acceptance. Truly, person-first language is damaging to the mental health of those in the autistic community. Especially when the terminology is forced upon the community and the voices of autistics are silenced.
Using person-first language
Person first language is commonly used by medical practitioners. Terms like disabled are interchanged with a person with a disability as an act of inclusion. According to Hoffman in the Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, "the goal of person-first language is to reduce or eliminate the attitudinal barriers in society that create obstacles for those impacted by disability" (pg. 40). Society has attached a stigma to terms like disabled and autistic that create challenges to education, employment, and medical care. The use of person-first language is an attempt to change the attitudes of society and alleviate the instant barriers raised if someone utters the word "I am autistic" or "I am disbaled".
While the motivating factor to use this new terminology may be based on good intentions it creates a new barrier for the autistic community. The use of person-first language is a reminder that there are two types of people; the normal and the "other". This segregation is that is caused by the use of person-first language is swiftly countered with identity first terminology. Identity first language does not view disability as a condition, but as a cultural identity (Dunn, Dana, & Andrews 255-264).
Building an identity
The neurodiversity movement created an opportunity for the autistic community to be seen as equals. No longer would be identifying as autistic cause apprehension, barriers, or self-doubt. Instead, being autistic is an integral part of your personality and how you interact with society. The neurodivergent movement stands firm in the belief that autism has a place in society and deserves equal opportunities in the neurotypical world. Autism has been labeled as a disability or disorder that must be fixed by eradicating the autistic traits associated with the diagnosis. Part of this movement is using person-first language and discouraging the autistic community from being self-accepting.
In a study conducted by The International Journal of Research and Practice, they interviewed parents and their autistic children. The goal of the study was to determine if parent's disclosure and perception of autism influenced how the child identity developed the preliminary evidence showed that being transparent about the autism diagnosis and having a positive opinion of being autistic may contribute to the overall identity development of autistic children (Riccio, 381).
An autistic identity is valid and does not need to be removed from society by ignoring that the autistic community is a uniquely neurodivergent Person first language takes away an autistic person's right to accept their neurotype. Also, it is important to consider the impact that self-denial causes on mental health. The negative experiences that autistic people face due to the impositions of person-first language is a form of invalidation and disempowerment. The autistic perspective is constantly silenced and ignored.
The danger of silencing voices
Individuals diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder are at higher risk for suicide. A study conducted in Denmark showed that autistic people were more likely to attempt suicide. The pressure that society has put upon the shoulders of the autistic community causes a mental health crisis. The acceptance of self and the acceptance of an autistic identity is vital to changing the narrative of autistic suicide.
Autistic advocates say that person-first language is more like a label than an identity. The word “label” carries the connotation of something negative and undesirable, whereas autistic people view themselves as strong individuals who are proud to be on the spectrum. The concept behind self-acceptance is not new and should be embraced by everyone no matter your neurotype. Person first language causes barriers, discrimination, oppression, and perpetuates the idea that being autistic makes you less than others in society. The autistic community is speaking out against harmful terminology, imagery, and stereotypes the create barriers in their life.
Autistic people deserve an equal chance at living fulfilling lives. In a world where neurodiversity is embraced, labels or identities can empower autistics to live a life that is defined by their terms. Labels do not need to be viewed as negative when they are used with pride and acceptance of both self and others in society. In order for change to happen, we must work together across the autism spectrum. The importance of identity affirmation for this community should be taken more seriously by society and the identity-first language embraced by humanity.
Originally written for our Writ320 course 2021
Clouder, Lynn, et al. “Neurodiversity in Higher Education: A Narrative Synthesis.” Higher Education (00181560), vol. 80, no. 4, Oct. 2020, pp. 757–778. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1007/s10734-020-00513-6.
Dunn, Dana S., and Erin E. Andrews. “Person-First and Identity-First Language: Developing Psychologists’ Cultural Competence Using Disability Language.” The American Psychologist, vol. 70, no. 3, Apr. 2015.:255-64. doi: 10.1037/a0038636.
Hoffman, Holly, et al. “Perspectives on Person-First Language: A Focus on College Students.” Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, vol. 33, no. 1, Jan. 2020, pp. 39–48.
Riccio, Ariana, et al. “How Is Autistic Identity in Adolescence Influenced by Parental Disclosure Decisions and Perceptions of Autism?” Autism: The International Journal of Research and Practice, vol. 25, no. 2, Feb. 2021, pp. 374–388.
“Suicide Risk among People with Autism Spectrum Disorder | Suicide Prevention Resource Center.” Sprc.Org, www.sprc.org/news/suicide-risk-among-people-autism-spectrum-disorder.