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Autistic vs Has Autism: What do I prefer?

I am almost always asked by those I speak with: “How do you prefer to be labeled?”. This important word choice (person-first as opposed to identity-first; person-first tends to be “people with Autism” as opposed to identity first which is “Autistic people”) comes to the heart of the Autism rights movement today. The person-first opinion has traditionally been the more common. They see the person-first approach as inherently humanizing. This person should not be labeled by their disability. They are an individual. But for many on the identity-first opinion, Autism is an identity. It isn’t comparable to cancer. These people subscribe far more to the social model of disability which posits that disability is shaped far more from how the non-disabled world views the disabled. It’s a culture clash that I fear is driving apart people who could work together. I think parents, Autistics, and professionals should and can work together on Autism inclusion. They all have valuable voices to add to the conversation. So what is it? Autistic or has/with Autism?

I have asked people to use identity-first language when describing me. Being an openly Autistic advocate, I view Autism as an integral part of my identity (which is why I also capitalize it). It hasn’t made my life worse. Instead, it has shaped who I am as an individual. Also, I feel that person-first language makes my Autism seem wrong or undesirable, something to be hidden. As someone who embraces my Autism, this is the exact opposite message that I am trying to send. 

At the same time, I think there is some merit to the person-first language especially when talking with a group of people who may hold ableist beliefs. For them, Autism negatively defines that person. It is viewed as a disease or sickness. And so, identity-first language could bolster that belief. When person-first language is used, we convey a message of “Hey, Autistic folks are people too! They deserve our humanity”. 

But I am just one person on the spectrum. What should you do with everyone else? Generally, most Autistic people prefer identity-first but I think the best thing to do is to borrow a practice from the LGBTQ+ community. Just ask! Everyone is entitled to self-identification. I happen to be someone who doesn’t care much about my label. I prefer identity-first but person-first doesn’t make me angry; I know it comes from a place of good intentions. This is a complicated issue with a lot of opinions. Let’s respect each other because, in the end, language is not the most important thing – it’s the effort to include and accept that matters the most.

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