Person First Language

2 Sep

“Autistic person”…or “person with Autism”?

Many people and parents have strong opinions on this topic. The idea is that calling someone “autistic” is looking at their diagnosis, instead of them as a person. Whereas, saying “person with autism” is looking at the person first, and diagnosis second.

Many autistic people write about their dislike of person-first language. They assert that person-first language suggests you can separate them from the autism, which they believe you can’t. Autism is a part of them, and not a shameful or terrible part that needs to be separated. They are proud of who they are and don’t want their autism carrying a negative connotation.

Other people with Autism are passionate about their preference for person-first language. They don’t want to be defined by, or reduced to, their diagnosis. They feel calling someone “autistic” is dehumanizing the person. People are more than their diagnosis. They prefer people to look at the person, not the disability.

Personally, I vacillate between the two phrases. My own family isn’t particularly emphatic about one or the other, so I find that I interchange them. I have worked with families that use person first language, so when I’m around them, I do too. I have also worked with other families that don’t, so when I’m around them, I don’t either. But overall, my experience has been that people I’m around don’t really care either way.

I feel that the separation of the person and the diagnosis perpetuates the stigma that it’s “bad” or “wrong”; Almost as though Autism is something so terrible or tragic that it needs to be estranged, rather than seen as part of the person. (Now, I am not necessarily saying  “Autism is simply a beautiful, wonderful gift we should embrace!!!” But, I certainly don’t think it helps to overly vilify the diagnosis.) We use descriptors all the time in everyday life; “blonde girl”, “tall guy”, “fast driver”, “loud teacher”, “shy kid”, etc, etc, etc.  And, in using those descriptors, we all realize those things do not define the person. They are just a way to quickly describe or categorize. No one would suggest that calling me a “brunette” is confining me, or reducing me, to a hair color. Everyone knows I am still a whole person, and pointing out my hair color is just looking at one part of me…not denying all my other qualities. So I think it’s the same with “autistic”. It’s used to describe something about a person, not to negate their wholeness as a human being.

With that said, I understand people are going to have strong opinions on both sides of the fence. And, that’s okay. Because I don’t feel extremely zealous one way or the other, I can pretty easily adjust my language based on my audience at any given time.  And interestingly enough, from my research online, it seems most autistic people actually prefer to be called “autistic” and rebuff person first language.

I’d love to know where you stand on this issue.

Here are some excellent blogs on this issue:

http://autismmythbusters.com/general-public/autistic-vs-people-with-autism/jim-sinclair-why-i-dislike-person-first-language/

http://www.stuartduncan.name/autism/the-last-word-on-person-first-language/

http://www.journeyswithautism.com/2012/04/25/the-problem-with-person-first-language/

http://suite101.com/article/personfirst-language-and-autism-a56063

http://illusionofcompetence.blogspot.com/2012/08/disability-first-autism-is-not-accessory.html

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5 Responses to “Person First Language”

  1. TwinkieMom2002 September 8, 2012 at 3:51 pm #

    There’s a big difference between a descriptor and a disability/diagnosis. Rather than inocuous physical attributes like “tall”, “blonde”, “smart”, “skinny”, try substituting a debilitating diagnosis such as cancer. Would you say “person with cancer” or “cancerous person”? We are all people first, so much more than the sum total of our skills, deficits, genders, and physical attributes.

    • angelina258 September 16, 2012 at 10:47 am #

      I fully agree that we are all people first, which is why I don’t believe saying “autistic” suggests that person is NOT a person first.

      And yes, autism is different than a religion or hair color or height or weight. It’s a lifelong disability, with hardship and struggle after hardship and struggle. But!!! It is what it is, and since it’s never going away I’m not sure separating it from the person because it’s so bad or terrible or tragic or shameful does anyone any good. The fact that it’s okay to call someone “Catholic” instead of “a person with Catholicism”, but not okay to call them “autistic”, in my opinion, perfectly illustrates and perpetuates the stigma attached to autism.

      But, with all that said…..I respect that some people are going to have strong opinions that differ from mine. And to each their own. 🙂

      • TwinkieMom2002 September 17, 2012 at 8:42 pm #

        No one is “separating” them. I just don’t believe in putting the diagnosis first. And again, “Catholic” isn’t a diagnosis or a disability.

    • Sheogorath June 25, 2014 at 2:53 pm #

      Things I Do Not Do.
      I do not suffer from Autism; my suffering is caused by a lack of acceptance and the malice of others.
      I do not experience Autism; it’s not Alton Towers or anything.
      I do not live with Autism; it is not my longterm partner.
      I do not have Autism; it is not a removable component with its own specially shaped slot.
      Now do you get why the vast majority of Autistic people prefer identity-first language?
      Copyright © 2014 Romersa’s Protégé. Individuals and groups are free to copy and share this work for all purposes except large scale distribution, subject to credit being given and any derivatives being released under the same or a similar licence. All other rights reserved.

  2. kazbrooksblog September 20, 2012 at 6:00 am #

    Autism and oughtisms blog has an excellent post on this topic called ‘has autism vs is autistic’. Worth checking out.

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