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Identity is important and we respect everyone’s right to choose the identifying language they are most comfortable with. To inform Stairway to STEM’s position on identifying language, we surveyed our autistic Content Creators and Editorial Board Members to see what language they preferred. Below are their responses.

“I have so many aspects of my identity that feel as though they build upon a simple foundation of being a person, but because being a person is so fundamental it’s also less important to emphasize. That’s why I use identity-first language for myself and other autistic people I meet, unless they tell me otherwise.”

photo of smiling Arianne Garcia

“I understand that ‘person first’ language is meant to be respectful, but honestly I don’t need to be reminded that I’m a person. The reminder usually needed for me is that I’m autistic and therefore have a different set of challenges and strengths. My personal opinion is that ‘person first’ language distracts from my needs.”

Claire Barnett

“I don’t think of my autism as a disability – and when people intentionally use “people-first language,” it feels like they are saying that autism is something I should want to hide. It isn’t. It’s a central part of who I am and I love who I am, so I strongly prefer identity-first language. Nobody on the spectrum should feel pressured to hide their autism or be ashamed of it.”

“True respect would involve people on both sides of this tiff engaging in a way that sounds natural in the moment. I am inclined to formally respect and use Identity-First Language because autistic adults generally seem to prefer it (though not all, a key reason for my opinion). I am willing to use whichever style fits the “flow” of the statement being made.”

John Caldora

“I work to support the development of autism as an identity so I support identity-first language. However, I recognize it is a controversial topic, so I consider ‘members of the autism spectrum’ to be an acceptable compromise. It focuses on the individual, but still considers identity development.”

“Autism is a fundamental part of who I am, down to the genetic level. Using autism as an adjective (identity-first) acknowledges this fact, like one’s race, gender, religion, nationality, or sexual orientation. Person-first language implies that my autism is somehow a separate entity from who I am, and that my personhood itself is separate from or opposed to autism (a person… with autism), both truly dangerous mentalities. I am autistic and proud, not in spite of who I am, but because of it.”

“As an individual on the spectrum and a graduate-student researcher in the autism field, I think that the preference for person-first versus identity-first language varies from person to person. I don’t have a strong preference as long as the communication is respectful and will use either “autistic” or “person with autism” depending on what the audience of what I create requests. I don’t think there is one right answer.”

“I am autistic, and proud of it. Have you ever heard of a “person with calmness” or a “person with happiness”? No? How about a “person with anger management issues” or a “person with depression”? I’m sure you have. We use person-first language to refer to bad things. When so many autistic people already have depression and poor self-esteem, I think the very last message we need to hear is that there is something wrong with us, and (rather ironically) that’s what I hear when someone uses person-first language. Beyond that, I would remind any typically-developing person or organization who seeks to impose their preferred terminology on the autistic community that our identities are at stake here. Typically-developing people have no right to dictate our identities: we have the only right to do so.”

Sara Sanders Gardner

photo of Sara Sanders Gardner

“I use Identity First language as a matter of social justice and civil rights. Autism is an integral part of who I am, and cannot be separated from me. For me, Person First language pathologizes autism and attempts to distance it from the person. I am proud of who I am; I am autistic.”

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