Home Discussions Educators Autism 101 Person-First Language?

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      I love what you’re trying to do but shouldn’t you be using person first language so you acknowledge that the person who has autism is a person before you label them an “autistic person”? I think that would come across better. It definitely throws me off when I see it over and over. The person is a person first. Autism is part of their life, but not their only defining characteristic. Just a thought ❤

      Elinore Alms

        Hi Courtney! That’s a great question, and it’s one that probably piques the interest of many parents and educators of autistic children. However, the broader online autism community has made it clear that autistic people have varied opinions on the matter. If you read through our statements, you’ll find that several authors on our site are autistic and prefer identity-first language. My take is that it’s appropriate to use whatever verbiage sounds best in the moment. Some adults really don’t like being called autistic, so we should respect that. Others can’t stand the clunky sound of “person with autism” or simply feel that, yes, it is part of their person unlike, say, cancer.

        Laura Gilmour

          I am autistic/on the spectrum and a researcher in the field and I don’t have a strong preference for either term as long as the content is spoken or written respectfully. I feel over the last few years in all aspects of politics that a focus on politically correct wording distracts from issues and barriers that directly affect people and determining solutions.

          Justin Robbins

            A friend and colleague of mine wrote an article on this very subject: https://www.massgeneral.org/aspire/autism-spectrum-disorder/identity-first-language-autism.aspx

            I contributed to that article in 2 parts, which I would like to share here:
            “Autism is a fundamental part of who I am, who we are, for good and ill. This goes all the way down to our very genetics. It is an identity, much like gender or race or religion. Saying “with/has autism” violates this fundamental truth by implying that you can separate a person from their autism. Consider how uncomfortable the phrase “person with gay” is! Not only are you saying that our autism can and should somehow be removed from us, but in phrases like “person with autism,” you imply that our being autistic is separate from us being people.
            …Words guide our worldviews and mentalities. Words matter. These words matter; they affect everything from federal policy to personalized interventions. How we talk about autism changes how we think about autism and what we do in response to autism. And for those reasons, I proudly say that I’m autistic.”


              I strongly prefer to say I am an autistic person. I am gifted. I am ambidextrous. I am Scots-Irish. These are personal attributes that are integral to my personhood. I can identify autistic traits in not just my kids, but my mother and my grandmother before her. If one of those attributes are taken away, then I am no longer Sheila as I have known her for 52 years. That being said, in the moment, I will use whatever phrasing fits, and I would not be offended by someone who “used the wrong terminology”, but I might correct them. Typically I will launch into a brief (for me) explanation… “I am on the the autism spectrum.” “I am autistic, I am what you would consider Aspie or Asperger.” “Think of me as a female Bill Gates.” I would never say I am a person with autism. It isn’t a cold.


              Hi, I’m the author, and I’m autistic. As others have stated here, I’m proud to be autistic, a long with the many other positive qualities that define me. It’s just that in this particular article, I was writing about autism and not my race, gender, or other defining characteristics. I understand that it’s jarring to hear it when you have learned that person-first language is more respectful, however, many of us feel disrespected and discounted by person-first language and we ask that others please respect the way we choose to refer to ourselves.

              Elinore Alms

                I’ve been thinking about this all day and I wanted to add one more piece: person-first language is derived from the understanding of autism as a pathological disorder. Most, if not all, of us look at autism from the neurodiversity standpoint. When you purposefully say “person with autism” it’s like you’re saying “I believe autism is a big, bad problem” and that short-changes all the beauty and gifts and fascination autism brings. We don’t believe autism is bad. We believe autism is another piece of the fabric of human experience: just as valid as any other human experience. It is real and it envelops every part of the life of the autistic person. You can’t take that away, you can’t change it. You can manage co-occurring conditions, like IBS or self-injury, but you can’t ever take autism away from the person any more than you can take your own thought processes away without critically damaging who you are. You aren’t you.

                I use the flow of the sentence to determine what phrasing I use, but I’ll tell you specifically why I am okay with using both. I’ve met a few autistic adults who feel like their autism is a real disability. They were raised wearing blue puzzle pieces, going to hundreds or thousands of hours of therapy, and have serious deficits, and they know it. They resent what autism has brought to their lives, and they want to hear “person with autism” because they want to feel separate from what has brought them so much pain. However, a diagnosis in late childhood or adulthood has brought peace and understanding to many people with autism, and still more knew the whole time and are just plain accepting of themselves. Isn’t that a ray of hope?

                It is my sign of respect to all autistic people to shift away from PC understanding on either side and instead use language that is beautiful in its own context.

                Maureen Perkins

                  I’ve given this much thought lately because someone told my son he must be “ashamed of who he was” because he didn’t identify himself to a group as an “autistic person”. His response was to say he was proud of who he was but it wasn’t pertinent to the conversation. He later said sometimes he says autistic person and sometimes person with autism. It depends on what his focus is at the time and what he is trying to convey. We raised him (and our other children) to avoid labels. This was important to us because we wanted to teach inclusion and avoid any “isms” such as racism, sexism, able or disable-ism, or gender exclusions. He is involved with a theater group, Spectrum Theatre Ensemble, and they all approach it differently. They let each individual be unique. They all have an autism component but they are writers, actors, singers, and dancers. Their amalgamation of differences complement the whole and make them successful. I feel whatever is one’s preference, it is most important that we let each person identify in the way that makes them most comfortable and confident. Everyone is different and to demand each person use specific words to identify or introduce themselves may make individuals feel controlled. A majority of people may prefer one description but majorities should not, in my opinion, overrule an individuals right to self-express. Live and let live:)

                  John Caldora

                    I’ve always gone with “Member of the Autism Spectrum.” I find it serves as a compromise between person-first and identity-first language. Personally though, I’m an identity-first advocate, it goes toward the development of Autism as an identity, rather than a pathology.

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