I call myself an austistic person. I do not call myself a “person with autism.” There’s a difference between these two phrases. As an austistic person I felt the need to clarify why I’ll refer to myself as autistic in future posts, on social media and if you ever meet me in person. The phrase “autistic person” is considered Identity First Language. It categorizes me first by my identity as part of the disabled community. The phrase “person with autism” is called Person First Language. The idea behind it is that it categorizes people with disabilities as a person above their disability.
Since coming out as autistic I’ve experienced a handful of people online who insist I use Person First Language to describe myself. In my experience, the folks pushing this language use are not autistic themselves, but instead are people who work with kids on the spectrum (teachers, parents, etc). I think these Person First Language advocates mean well. They want their kids, students, friends, and relatives who have autism to first be identified as a person and not as their disability.
However, I (like many adults on the spectrum) advocate for using Identity First Language. Autism defines the core of how our brains work and how we function every day. There is nothing I do without my autism, which is why it’s hard for me to imagine calling myself a “person with autism.” It makes me feel as though I should be carrying it around in my purse and tucking it away when I don’t need it. Instead, my autism is there all the time.
Today I’m here to tell you that I call myself an autistic person and you are welcome to call me that too. I don’t find that it makes me any less of a person. In fact, the very idea that autism has wired my brain to be neurodiverse means that it’s so ingrained in who I am and in my personality that it’s impossible for me to separate it. It is who I am.
I was once told by someone on social media that it made them “cringe” when hearing me call myself autistic. This person is an advocate in the autism community. I was told that I wasn’t doing my own community any favors by referring to myself in this “negative” manner. I was urged to start using Person First Language instead.
Here’s the thing, I feel like this push for me to adopt Person First Language only continues to stigmatize autism and marginalize autistic people as whole. It assumes that I don’t want my autism to define me (spoiler: it does). It assumes that autism should be the least interesting thing about me. It makes my autism seem like a negative thing that I should not embrace.
I refer to myself as an autistic person because frequently if I try to say it more gently I receive responses that assume I’m joking around or over-exaggerating my disability. If I say “oh I’m on the spectrum” or “I’m a person with autism.” I’m met with things like, “We’re all a little autistic” or “Well we’re all on the spectrum.” Sometimes I would rather say I’m an autistic person in order to advocate for myself and ensure people take me seriously. Let me be BOLD with it if I want to, you might not realize that sometimes I need to.
I’ll close this out with a quote from one of my favorite articles on this very same topic, The Logical Fallacy of Person First Language,
“Anyone who needs to constantly remind themselves that disabled people are people should probably spend more time examining their own beliefs and less time telling other people how to speak about themselves or their children.
Using person first language to refer to autistic children and identity first language to refer to typically developing children isn’t inclusive. It’s othering and unnecessary.”
She goes on to say, “Autistic people, however, have repeatedly expressed a preference for identity first language. For some reason, nonautistic people who think they know better continue to ignore our (loudly and oft-stated) preference. To those people I say, “If you truly believe we’re people, first or otherwise, then listen to what we’re saying and respect our preference.”
Autistic is not a dirty word. When you act like it is, you aren’t helping autistic people. You’re contributing the very stigma that you pretend to abhor.”
I can’t think of a better way to end this disclaimer on why I’ll continue to refer to myself as an autistic person.