Autism terminology: Identity or person first language

Oh maaaaaan, I hate person-first language so much, as soon as I hear or read it my face goes totally rogue and goes into a sneer like someone’s just dropped a really stinky fart. Not good if I’m in company and I have to do a Polite Face.

First of all, let’s clarify what is person-first language and what is identity-first language.

Person-first language= “person with autism” and “X has autism”
Identity-first language= “autistic person” and “X is autistic”

Got it? Good.

And here is why I hate it:

1. It wasn’t our idea. Person-first language is almost always non-disabled people telling us that we should be referred to in this way, whether we like it or not. Because apparently everyone needs reminding that we are ‘people first’ and that we are ‘not our diagnoses’. What patronising bullshit. A couple of years ago, a study showed that the majority of autistic adults prefer identity-first language, while professionals prefer person-first (think you might have to pay for the full paper, but you can read the abstract for free). If you have to change your language around to some awkward, clunky, backwards way to remind yourself that someone is an actual fucking person, then maybe you’re in the wrong job, mate.

2. It makes autism sound like a disease. You know, like “Ew, you have autism.” It’s not a disease. It’s not something we ‘have’, you can’t catch it or develop it or ‘recover’ from it.

3. It makes it sounds like autism is an optional extra. Autism isn’t an add-on. It’s there from the very beginning, it never switches off. EVERYTHING we experience is filtered through an autistic brain. Also, saying ‘has autism’ presumes we would be the same person without it. Not true. Autism has shaped our experiences from birth. We are not damaged versions of ‘normal’ people.

4. Skirting around the word ‘autistic’ infers that being autistic is a bad thing. Why the need to separate the person from the autism? Why can’t people just say ‘autistic’? People say things like “you are more than your autism”, what does that mean? The reason people don’t want to say it is because they think autism is bad. They think we are ‘more than autism’ because autism is a bad thing that we need to distance ourselves from. Well, fuck that. There’s nothing wrong with being autistic.

I know some people might read this and think “it’s just words, it doesn’t hurt anyone”. Sure, it is just words. But words have power. You can deny it all you like, but language does have power. The language you use matters. Being afraid to say ‘autistic’ says a lot about how you feel, and fear spreads.

We are not something to be scared of.

We are not a scary, horrible thing that will rob your child from you.

We are not a death sentence.

We’re just different.

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