Words by Sophie McMahon- Comment Print Editor

‘Autistic Person’, ‘Person with autism’, ‘Person who has autism’, which is the correct phrase to use?

I am neurotypical and relatively new to autism advocacy, so I was surprised by my passion for the Identity vs. Person First Language debate. Being a respectful ally to a marginalised community requires being educated on a myriad of different things, including the identifying language used to refer to the group. 

Let me give you some background. 

Person First Language (PFL) means saying, ‘person with autism’. Those who use this term do not see autism as part of their or someone else’s identity and prefer to see the humanity of a person before using an identifier.

Looking at autism as part of an individual’s identity, hence the name, Identity First Language (IFL) affirms the value and worth of an autistic person. It accepts that autism is something that cannot be separated from an individual and who they identify as, just the same as someone who is a Christian or a Muslim.

The sources which I regard as having the highest priority, those written by autistic individuals themselves, tend to prefer IFL because it celebrates and accepts that they are different from neurotypical people and that is okay. It acknowledges that autism does define a person, in that it influences every aspect of how someone sees, understands, and interprets the world, which confers its own benefits. 

Person First Language is favoured by those closest to autistic people, like their parents or carers. However, it carries an attitudinal nuance because it suggests that an autistic person can be separated from their autism; something that is simply not true. It has been described by autistic individuals as ‘patronising and dehumanising’ because it is as though they must remind others that they are in fact, people.

When neurotypicals write on the topic, like parents and carers they adopt PFL by default, even if they know Identity First is preferred. For example, in an article by Roger Collier, he talks about Jim Sinclair, an autistic man who advocates the use of IFL, but then describes him as an ‘adult with autism’. 

Demanding that a community should refer to themselves in a specific way, is ableist. Yet there have been countless cases of neurotypicals writing using IFL and their work being turned away by publishers. It seems that academia is lagging behind culture yet again.

Yo Samdy Sam, an autistic YouTuber who is vocal on issues relating to autism, says: 

“I’m not gonna get annoyed if someone says it (PFL) in casual conversation. This isn’t about grammar policing. It’s more about the people who correct other people and insist on people using person first language in every case.

“Talking round the word you really want to use in such an obvious way, makes it sound like it’s an insult, a slur, or otherwise something to be ashamed of… it is not more polite to avoid calling me what I actually am.”

To some this might seem like a topic of little relevance, given that the two phrases hold the same literal meaning. But language and how we say things, can hold certain connotations which are powerful in developing attitudes. It is about offering the same humility to autistic individuals that you would offer to someone who, say, prefers the term ‘African-American’ to ‘Black’ or ‘Latino/a’ to ‘Hispanic’.

Although I have voiced that from research, Identity First Language is generally preferred by most of the autistic community. I implore you to accept that the preferences of autistic individuals trump everything, regardless of your own opinions. 

It is about time that we listened, learnt, and accepted that there are other lenses to the world that are not neurotypical. 

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