There’s a lot at stake for autistic people in the debate regarding whether to use identity-first or person-first language as a framework for self-identification. In the past, it was more common for autistic people to be identified—often by allistic, or non-autistic people— by person-first language. However, as autistic advocates have brought greater awareness to autistic culture as a way of being in and experiencing the world, we are seeing a significant shift away from person-first language toward identity-first language as a means of representation.
But what do “identity-first” and “person-first” language mean? What’s the difference, and why is it important? Simply put, each type of expression depends primarily on word order, or syntax, and the different implications of each order.
Word order, really? Is that all we’re talking about?
Well, let’s take a look.
In identity-first language, the adjective or descriptive phrase comes before the noun. Autistic person: the adjective “autistic” is placed before the noun it describes, “person.” This type of identifying language is the one largely preferred by those of our contributors who are autistic. As Editorial Board Member Sara Sanders Gardner writes, “Words matter. They matter to me, and, in autistic culture, they matter to us.” Or, as Volunteer Contributor Patrick Dwyer says, “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.” Sara and Patrick’s positions reflect common themes in our contributor responses to the question of identifying-language preferences.
So what is person-first language and do STS contributors ever employ it?
In person-first language, the noun comes before the descriptive phrase: a person with autism. In this case, the noun “person” precedes the phrase “with autism.” Perhaps you’re thinking, what’s so bad about that? Patrick’s explanation of why he prefers identity-first language contains one of the central critiques of person-first language: we tend to use person-first language when we want to describe unpleasant or unappreciated qualities, or when a person is in jeopardy.
Patrick’s counter-examples, a “person with calmness” and a “person with happiness,” where positive qualities are “separated” from the person, might have made you laugh or smile a little bit because they seem so stilted and strange. But why does it work like that?
When we say a “person with depression” or a “person with anger-management,” that little preposition, with, does a lot of interesting work. It may be helpful to recall that the main function of prepositions is generally to clarify or explain the relationship between two different people, places, or things. So, the depression is different from the person. The anger-management issues can be separated from the person. Implicit in a person-first phrase such as “a person with autism,” then, is the sense that the condition of autism can be removed or taken away, and the essential “person” underneath will remain. However, autism is not something that can be separated from or situated in relation to an autistic person. It is inherent and experiential. And it is hurtful to claim otherwise.
Many of the aspects of autism that lead to a diagnosis present opportunities as well as challenges. Maybe you have heard the term “neurodiversity,” which focuses on the variation of human experience among people with differently-wired brains, rather than lack. In other words, we do not want to ignore or gloss over the often-significant academic, professional, or personal challenges that can be a component of autistic experience. At the same time, autism is more than a diagnosis.
So, for many autistic people, person-first language represents a sometimes well-meaning construction that causes harm by elevating more typical ways of being at the expense of less typical ones.
At this point you may be thinking, so why would STS ever publish content that contains person-first language? Well, as Sara Sanders Gardner noted in one of the collaborative discussions around crafting this policy, “it’s complicated!”
Person-first language is used in STS content in certain situations (more on those in a minute) because not everyone who has an autism diagnosis prefers identity-first language. There is a long history of person-first language use in relation to autism, and there can be many reasons why someone who has an autism diagnosis would prefer or accept person-first language. Content Creator Laura Gilmour identifies herself as “an individual on the spectrum,” and states that she doesn’t “have a strong preference as long as the communication is respectful and [that she] will use either ‘autistic’ or ‘person with autism.’” Editorial Board Member John Caldora strongly prefers identity-first language, but looks for ways to be productive despite differences, writing, “I support identity-first language…[but] I consider ‘members of the autism spectrum’ to be an acceptable compromise.” While some autistic contributors like or may find the common phrase “a person on the spectrum” acceptable, others find it problematic and offensive, and prefer person-first constructions, when used, such as “a person who has a diagnosis of autism.” In terms of STS contributors who are autistic, we certainly see variation and even disagreement about practices and beliefs—just as you would on any dynamic team.
Editorially, though, these considerations are clearly tricky to navigate.
However, there is one thing the STS community can all agree on: unequivocally, the right to determine whether to use identity-first or person-first language belongs to the individual autistic person, and that all other people, whether they have an autism diagnosis or not, should abide by that preference. We also believe that we are part of a heterogeneous community of dedicated people working toward common goals, which is something we never want to lose sight of.
This is, we know, a lot to take in. But it’s also very important!
We hope that by taking the time to explain the conversations and considerations that went into our editorial policy, we give community members the fullest understanding of how we came to the decisions that we did. We have worked very carefully to develop an editorial policy around this question of identifying language that does three things: upholds the individual person’s right to self-identify how they choose, respects the unresolved nature of the debate, and builds in examination and revision.
Finally, in the statement below, we use the terms “neurodivergent” and “neurotypical” as neutral terms that describe a contributor’s brain function in relation to conventional understanding or expectations of how the brain works. Autistic contributors are neurodivergent, and those without autism are presumed neurotpyical in the particular context of STS.
Here is our editorial policy:
Identity-First and Person First Language
STS has a tiered and evolving position on identity-first and person-first language because we think it’s essential to honor the diverse positions within the autistic community, while also responding to majority trends in terms of self-identification.
- Contributors who are neurodivergent should use whatever designation they prefer.
- Contributors who are neurotypical parents of neurodivergent children should use the designation preferred by their child.
- Neurotypical Contributors without significant friend or family ties to a neurodivergent individual should alternate between use of identity-first and person-first language within each piece of content. Those with close ties should use the preferred designation of their friend(s) or relatives(s).
Because this language decision has many implications, the STS Editorial Board will revisit this position at least two times per year and revise as necessary.
We know that this policy will be refined over time, but it has been developed through STS dialogue, feedback, and research. Periodically, we’ll solicit community member feedback in the forums or with polls. And when our editorial board next convenes to revisit this position, we’ll be sure to update community members about any changes.
The STS Team