The Significance of Semantics: “Autistic Person” or “Person with Autism”?
Is it autistic person or person with autism? Is one more correct than the other? What term does someone on the autism spectrum prefer? In this post, I’ll be answering all those questions and more! Be sure to subscribe to my newsletter to get FREE weekly value delivered straight to your inbox and without further ado, let’s dive in!
Before I get into the two different labels and which one is preferred in the autism community, I want to give a quick backstory to why I am writing this post today. Back in 2020, I posted a video titled How I found out I have Autism and I like to refer to it as my “autism coming out video”! I filmed it shortly after I discovered I am autistic earlier that year, and I talk about how I believe my eating disorder masked my autistic symptoms for most of my life. I remember feeling SO scattered while recording that video, and that’s honestly because I WAS!
A whole new world had completely opened up for me, a world I didn’t even know existed. It was as if I had been living as a single speck of color in a black and white universe, and suddenly, I could see the entire color spectrum. Don’t mind the pun, but if you’re already familiar with me and my work, you know I LOVE metaphors and I feel like the color spectrum is SUCH a beautiful way to symbolize the autism spectrum! Just like every color on the color spectrum is unique with its own hue, value, and chroma, every individual on the autism spectrum is unique with their own traits, interests, and personality.
Anyways, that video was really my best attempt at making sense of everything that simply hadn’t made sense for the first 20 years of my life. I was a complete newbie to the neurodivergent community and immersed myself into learning as much as I could about neurodiversity and everything that has to do with it. Obviously, I have learned A LOT in the past 2 years, and continue to learn each and every day. That’s the beauty of life; we are constantly learning and growing wiser and stronger because of all our experiences!
All that said, in this post I want to share one of the most prominent lessons I have learned since starting my Autism journey, and that is regarding the role of semantics. When I posted my first autism video back in 2020, I thought "person with autism" was the exact same thing as “autistic person”. Just like the famous difference between potayto or potahto and tomayto or tomahto, I assumed “autistic person” and “person with autism” were simply different “accents” of the same idea.
Well boy, I couldn’t have been more wrong! Even though I believed them to mean the same thing at their core, the reason I initially referred to myself as “someone with autism” as opposed to “autistic person” has to do with my history of an eating disorder. Let me explain:
When I was struggling with Anorexia, never did I identify with the disease. I HATED it when people referred to me as “anorexic” or a “disordered eater” because I was not anorexia. You can have Anorexia or any other eating disorder or disease for that matter, but the disease itself is not you. This distinction is really important to make when it comes to disorders or diseases, because it gives you the opportunity and power to recover from, and one day be FREE from the illness.
When it comes to autism and neurodiversity, it’s a whole nother story. Although the official diagnostic name for autism as stated in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition) is Autism Spectrum Disorder, this definition is completely mislabeled…because autism is not a disorder! It’s not something that you “suffer” from and should strive to “recover” from. Being autistic simply means your brain is wired differently, which is part of what makes you so unique!
Now, I didn’t know any of this when I first started my autism journey. I was just glad my “weirdness” finally had a NAME, and didn’t really consider the identity aspect of it. This quickly changed after I started sharing more about “having autism” on my Instagram and an autistic individual kindly pointed out to me that people on the Autism Spectrum prefer to use identity-first language over person-first language. Speaking of constantly learning, these were yet again two completely new terms for me! So, I did what any other autistic person would do, and I did more research!
Identity-First Language...puts a person's condition or state before the person. In the Autism community, most people prefer using terms such as “Autistic,” “Autistic person,” or “Autistic individual”. This is because we understand autism as an inherent part of an individual’s identity, similar to how most individuals in the LGBTQ+ community prefer to be called "gay" or "queer" instead of "person with gayness" or "person with queerness". Or, think about people with a specific racial/cultural background or religion: most individuals will say "I am African-American" or "I am Jewish" as opposed to "a person with African-American-ness" or "a person with Jewish-ness".
Person-First Language, on the other hand, puts a person before their condition or state. In the case of Autism, "person with Autism" would be used. Many ableist organizations advocate for using person-first language, arguing that using person-first language is to remember that the individual is a person first…but seriously, you shouldn’t need to remember that an autistic individual is a person first.
The problem with person-first language and why most autistic advocates prefer to use identity-first language, is because person-first language implies that autism is something we carry, and is not part of our innate being. In my opinion, one of the most appalling ways person-first language is used, is “person who suffers from autism”. The argument for THIS phrase is to prompt the possibility of “treatment” for the “disorder”, but as I mentioned earlier, autism is not a disease or an illness. It’s simply a different way of BEING, and cannot and SHOULD not be sought to be “cured”!
Should you use "Autistic" or "person with Autism"?
If you’ve made it this far, first of all you are AWESOME and loyal and I love and appreciate you! Second of all, I’m sure it’s pretty clear which terminology you I prefer you use when it comes to communicating with individuals on the autism spectrum.
As someone who is super detail-oriented, has a strong sense of righteousness, and is hyper-attentive to semantics and nuance, I prefer to use identity-first language. Autism is part of who I am. It's not something that I can lift off my shoulders and put aside for a moment, and it's not an illness (like an eating disorder) that I have to fight to get rid of or recover from. Everything about me is autistic. Every move I make, every choice I face, every social interaction I have; it's all me, being autistic.
However, I am aware that EVERY individual is unique, and different neurodivergent individuals will prefer different terminology! I myself will often use the terms interchangeably just to provide some variety in my language, but I am now aware of the important distinction, and will be very intentional with my words, depending on the specific situation.
Hopefully this post has inspired YOU to be more intentional in your communication with individuals on the spectrum and if so, please contact me to let me know how my words have impacted you! Remember, if you’re EVER unsure about which language to use, simply ask the person you are communicating with! As a relatively new member of the autistic community, I understand that certain terminology can be confusing, and like I said at the beginning of this post, I am constantly learning and allowing myself to be educated by others.
There is no shame in not knowing all the answers, because NO ONE has all the answers! That’s what life is for, and that’s what PEOPLE are for. We are all here to educate and learn from each other. So with that said, let me know in the comments one thing YOU learned from today’s post, or send me a DM on Instagram with any insights or further questions! As always, be sure to subscribe to my newsletter to be the first to know when I release a new post. Thanks for reading!
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