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The subject of language is such an important factor in shaping the way we look at and interact with society. The connotations and assumptions that have been learned with language have moulded (intentionally or unintentionally) our perspectives and outlook. These learned assumptions play a large part in influencing our way of understanding and looking at things and sadly, at times, one’s outlook can be detrimental to others. Stereotypes and labels, unfortunately, are often a misrepresentation of what some believe to be the truth and regrettably place barriers before those they view as ‘different’ or as ‘other’. We view difference as being bad. However, what does different mean and who decided this?
When speaking on difference, the autistic community has struggled with being labelled and stereotyped as ‘different’. If we, as a society, could change our perspectives and look at autistic people not as ‘different’ or as an ‘other’, but instead see that in a lot of cases, the difference simply lies in their approach to how they cope in and interact with society. This shift in thinking could truly offer this community the respect and acceptance they deserve.
To that note, there has been much debate and controversy surrounding the appropriate choice of language used when identifying or communicating with an autistic person. This debate is focused on identity-first language (“autistic person”) versus person-first language (“person with autism”). Now, you may look at the above mentioned two forms of language and think these nuisances are based on semantics, however, if you look to understand and break it down the difference is not only important but rather quite clear.
The concepts are:
- Identity-first language which is the preferential choice of language for those within the autistic community. It is their preference for the use of words such as “Autistic” or “Autistic person” when being addressed, spoken or identified with. Since we know that autism is an inherent part of a person’s identity, it is believed that identity should be recognized first. The person cannot break away from autism. Therefore, from this perspective, identity-first language is a choice for empowerment, shared community beliefs, culture and identity. It speaks to the fact that being autistic is nothing to be ashamed of and differences are to be respected and celebrated not criticized.
- Person-first language has been adopted by parents, caretakers and professionals of autistic people and they use terminology such as “person with autism”. This viewpoint explains in essence, that person-first language puts the person before the disability or the condition and focuses on the merits and worth of the individual by accepting them as a person instead of a condition. This outlook taken on by caretakers, family members and professionals are based on the idea that they do not consider autism to be part of the child’s identity and therefore don’t want them to be labelled as such.
The controversy, therefore, surrounding the use of person-first language as recognized by many within the autistic community, is that it suggests that a person can be separated from autism. Autism is a neurological, developmental condition that’s considered a disorder with disabling effects. It is lifelong and does not on its own cause harm or death such as another disease might (such as measles… but don’t get my started on vaccine safety). Diseases, unlike autism, are often labelled through the use of “with”, such as, “person with cancer”. Autism, on the other hand, is part of a person’s individuality and make-up which shapes a person’s way of understanding the world and interacting in it. In labelling autistic people in the same way you would someone with a disease puts autism as inherently bad just like a disease, which clearly could not be further from the truth.
Consequently, this is why those within the autistic community are fighting to change this use of language to a more identity focussed instead of disability focussed point of view. Is it too far-fetched for us to respect the wishes of those to whom we are referring and who can, in fact, speak on real-life experience and their identity?
By understanding the differences and connotations associated with language and its use, alongside, respecting the wishes of those that identify as autistic is crucial. When in doubt of which language should be used while engaging with the community it is best to check amongst the group and its members. If you are still unclear, then I recommend you reach out and ask.
In my writing, I will use identity- first language, unless I am asked to do otherwise by my collaborators or the person I am writing about. This goes against my training and habits, but I want to honour the voices and opinions of the autistics who have shared their wishes with us.
Remember, language is important and impactful in so many ways and can, unfortunately, have harmful consequences if used inappropriately. For this reason, we need to recognize the way in which we choose to use language and continue to be cognizant of its outcome, always.