What is the correct way to refer to me and others like me? Let’s talk about talk.
When it comes to autism, there’s a lot of talk about talk. Mostly, in the form of arguments for or against one of two sides. One side promotes ‘person-first language’. Person-first language is calling someone a “person with autism.” This is because they feel that putting emphasis on the fact that we are people will help humanize us, and also often because they don’t want to see their child as a walking condition/diagnosis. Rather, they would like to see them as just their child.
The other side champions ‘identity-first language’. Aka: “I’m autistic”, “I’m an autistic”, or “I’m an autistic person.” This is because, since autism is in our brains and is a major aspect of our personality, we don’t see ourselves as separate from our condition anymore than you might see yourself as separate from your gender, sexuality, religion, race, or other intricate parts of your identity. We feel that separating autism from our personhood is dehumanizing in that it is trying to sanitize and change us to be more appealing to neurotypicals. As if we can’t be seen as both autistic and a person, that these things must be separate, because autism is not a person and the implication is that being neurotypical is the default onto which is added autism. Except that’s not the case. We cannot be without our autism, just like we cannot be without our gender, sexuality, religion, etc.
I’m female in the same way I’m autistic. No one ever stops me to say that I should say “No, you’re a person with female-ness. Put the person before the female.” The implication I get from that is that, somehow, females aren’t a type of people. Which is probably why no one says it, because females are undeniably people. But apparently, autistics are not?
If you can’t tell already, I prefer identity-first language for all the reasons I’ve listed, and probably a few more I’m forgetting.
The main point I’d like to get to isn’t the merits of one over the other. In fact, I think it’s just fine if someone prefers to be referred to as a person with autism (though as an English nut, I feel it’s a bulky, unnecessary phrase). If they do, then I’ll respect that and refer to them as such – though I should mention that the majority I’ve encountered and across the expanse of the internet prefer identity-first. No, the main point I’d like to get to has to do with non-autistic people getting all huffy and puffy over language. There are a lot of people online who claim to be autism advocates, parents, or professionals who flat out stamp on and insult autistic people for asking that their choices be respected. Sometimes a neurotypical posts something about “people with autism” and an autistic person corrects them, only to be virtually shouted at, berated, and belittled. Sometimes a neurotypical will seek out autistics and inform them that they’re being offensive.
However they make these comments, neurotypicals engaging in this behavior are disrespecting and offending the very people they claim they want to help. They are silencing our voices because we make them uncomfortable and they are accustomed to the stereotype that we cannot communicate. Sometimes they tell us that because we can speak, we don’t count (which is always amusing when this is told to someone who then reveals themselves to be non-verbal behind the keyboard). It’s as if they want us to be silenced. They want to believe the stereotype that autistics cannot communicate. The advance of technology has made us more capable than ever before, and they don’t want us talking for ourselves, because then who will listen to them as the expert? We challenge their authority by existing and typing. You can’t have much more expertise and authority on autism beyond being autistic yourself and living it 24/7. I feel that these people talking over us are afraid that we’ll displace them and replace them as the ‘top dog’ in go-to autism related matters. They have a loud privilege at the moment in this society. Like all people with privilege, they’re afraid of losing it, even if it’s a sub-conscious fear. So they put us down and try to keep us quiet, try to make their voices the loudest.
No one likes being told that what they’re doing is hurtful. It’s a personal stab when someone accuses you of doing anything wrong, even if you didn’t mean to. But if you’re an adult, you should know to graciously accept comments and use them to better yourself. The proper response to an autistic person telling you, “Actually, I prefer being called autistic” is not “How dare you question me?! I have so many qualifications!” (or variations thereof). Instead, try, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know. I’ll try to do better in the future. Thank you.”
And as for other autistics out there… Don’t be afraid to correct people to whatever your preference is. If they don’t hear/read/see our voices and communications, then they’ll never change, never learn to respect our agency, and may not even realize we do indeed have our own agency. If you can’t emotionally handle the potential backlash, then do what’s best for your mental health. But if you can, know you have the support of at least this autistic. You do you, and don’t let anyone tell you you’re doing it wrong.
What are your thoughts on and experiences with person-first vs. identity-first language? Leave them in the comments below!
Some Girl with a Braid says: … And that’s how I learned I’m autistic.
Blue Mommy Martyr says: Oh no, sweety, you shouldn’t say ‘Autistic’. Say ‘Person with Autism’ or else you’re insulting them. Put the ‘person’ first.
Some Girl with a Braid says: Can you not see us as people and autistics at the same time? I feel personhood is implied with any descriptive identity. And, as an autistic, I prefer identity-first language. Actually, the vast majority of autistics I’ve encountered within the autistic community prefer identity-first terminology because we feel that separating our personhood from our neurology is stigmatizing and vilifying a significant part of who we are. We cannot be the people we are without our autism. We cannot be people without our brains. Autism is also not something we can be rid of; it is not a cancer that can be cured or a purse that can be put down. It is always with us. It is who we are, for better or worse. It’s the same way you would refer to yourself as a female instead of ‘person with female-ness’. It’s a part of who you are and not offensive. If someone on the spectrum does prefer person-first language, then use it at their request, but by telling me how to talk about myself, you are policing and silencing the community you want to help, and insulting us by trying to rob our agency.
Blue Mommy Martyr says: How dare you! I know more about the experience of people with autism than you ever could because I’m a professional and I have a two year old nephew with autism!
Some Girl with a Braid says: …
Blue Mommy Martyr says: You obviously don’t know any better, so I’ll be offended by you on your behalf and attack you for you.
Some Girl with a Braid says: Are you serious right now?
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