‘Autistic’, ‘person with autism’, ‘on the spectrum’, ‘aspie’, the question of how to correctly refer to someone with autism/an autistic person is one that many off and on the spectrum have tried to decipher over the years. However, despite an extremely vocal debate, the autistic community is still far from finding a concrete answer to this discussion and, as such, the subject of ‘To use people first language or not to use people first language’ has become a minefield of political correctness, where one wrong word can label you as insensitive, inappropriate or just plain ignorant.

Today I have put myself in the unenviable position of settling this argument (of which we are all secretly aware has no real answer) as, unlike most people with autism, I find that I am in the rare position of describing myself and my condition with what is commonly known as people first language i.e. ‘person with autism’.

So join me on a journey of semantics, as today I try to answer the question: ‘which is correct ‘autistic person‘ or ‘person with autism?’.

Why do we use People First Language?

For many entering the workplace and/or places of academia, when the question which this article is based around is raised, they will be taught to use people first language, over phrases such as ‘autistic person’.

The reason for this stems from the belief that, if you are identifying someone as a person before their condition, you limit the risk that said person has of becoming synonymous with what they have.

In theory this is all well and good, however, it doesn’t take too much digging to see that the problem with this, is that we are not solving the issue of inequality in the workplace, just sweeping the autistic diagnosis under the carpet.

Autism and employment is something I have previously discussed, so I won’t repeat myself here. However, I have chosen to mention it as it demonstrates the almost immediate debate surrounding people first language: a debate that has since picked up speed, becoming a major cause for controversy amongst anyone wanting to discuss autism, and consequently a major pain in my… Asperger’s discussions.

Why we Shouldn’t use People First Language:

When looking at why we shouldn’t use people first language, it’s impossible not to mention Jim Sinclair (the other, less awesome, Jim Sinclair), as it is largely his writings in 1999 which have spearheaded the anti-people first language movement.

In his article: ‘why I dislike people first language’ – a subtly titled summary of why the man with the great name, hates people first language, Jim Sinclair gives three highly detailed reasons for why we should stop saying ‘person with autism’:

  1. Saying ‘person with autism’ insinuates that autism is temporary
  2. Autism may be a feature, but it’s an essential feature, which should be placed first and foremost
  3. Separating yourself from your diagnosis suggests that you are not accepting of it, and as such are trying to push it back

In the 19 years since these words were written, many have built on Sinclair’s points, and now it seems the modern day argument against using person first language surrounds the idea that it’s not about how we see ourselves, but how we want others to see us.

Simply put, many people who are against people first language now believe that there is a fourth reason for using the opposite: if we put our diagnosis before anything else, we show that the person and the condition are inseparable. This helps to raise awareness of how autism looks and, as a result, progresses general attitudes during a time when autism is being hotly discussed.

Why we Should we use People First Language?

The problem I find with the previous view, is that it doesn’t take into account those in the autistic community for which autism isn’t something they want to celebrate or highlight.

These are the people who, for them, autism has drawbacks and they may not want to be associated with the thing which brings them complications in day to day life.

Futhermore, even those who do not see their autism as a drawback, may also fit into this way of thinking, as though they believe autism is a significant feature for them, they believe it is not the sole reason for everything they do.

This is the reason I personally use person first language. I believe that, even if a person does identify as autistic, this shouldn’t be the first point of call for them. The autistic spectrum is absolutely huge and I don’t believe that by stating you are on it, you are giving very much information away about yourself (other than in all probability you are more than likely an awesome individual).

I also believe that the moment you state you are autistic, you open yourself up to a range of false assumptions based on an individual’s experience of autism. Though by no means do I think this should result in people hiding their autism, but just pushing back this announcement by two words could certainly avoid blindsiding someone with your diagnosis.

How Should you Address Someone with Autism?

Luckily for us, there is an answer to this debate and it comes in the form of a 3000+ survey carried out by the National Autistic Society.

In the 2015 survey it was found that, although most autistic adults like diagnosis first language, everyone and their mothers (literally) like the term ‘person on the spectrum’.

The survey also found that (to no one’s surprise) everybody hates functioning labels, and further responses showed that doctors like to use the term A.S.D (but what do they know?).

Alternatively (and you may want to sit down for this suggestion), you could ignore all these findings and simply ask the person on the spectrum how they want their diagnosis to be linked to them. I know it seems like a pretty out there thing to do, but this way you ensure that nobody gets offended and you can be certain that you won’t find yourself taking sides in argument that has no real answer and shows no signs of ending soon.

Carry on the Conversation

What do you think? Is it time to do away with people first language or do you believe it’s fine right where it is? As always I would love your input in the comments below.

Alternatively I can be found on Twitter @AutismRevised and via my email: AutisticandUnapologetic@gmail.com.

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Thank you for reading and I will see you next Saturday, for more thoughts from across the spectrum.