In my previous blog post, “Fourteen Things Not to Say to an Autistic Adult,” I said that using either autism-first language or person-first language is, or should be, a personal choice. There are some situations in which a particular version is required; for example, many disability service organizations require their employees to use person-first language. Outside of that, though, which one to use — “autistic person” versus “person with autism” — is up to the individual person.
Many people in the autism community use autism-first language, and some autism organizations encourage the use of identity-first language and discourage person-first language. As a representative of the Autism Self-Advocacy Network said, “being autistic is part of who we are. If I cannot be without autism, I cannot be with it either.”
One of the reasons I’ve been given for rejecting identity-first language is the idea that somehow, identifying as autistic means that autism is my entire identity. One commenter on the post said that saying “autistic” means that autism defines them. I say that I’m a feminist, that I’m a Christian, that I’m a woman and that I’m Canadian, to name just a few things. None of those things is my entire identity, and people don’t usually accuse me of defining myself by those terms, so I don’t know why saying that I am autistic suddenly means that is my entire identity. People say, “I am American,” “I am Canadian,” “I am French,” etc., and nobody tells them, “No, you must say, ‘I am a person with Americanness,’ or ‘I am a person with Frenchness,’” or tell them to stop making their nationality be their entire identity.
Another argument against identifying as autistic is that “you are not your autism,” and that I have to separate myself from my autism. However, I do not consider my autism to be a separate thing. It’s not like I can pack it away in a box and bring it out when I choose. It’s always there, whether I want it to be or not. Most of the time I am fine with it being there, but sometimes it can cause problems, such as when I am in a noisy environment.
One person said that using “autistic” is patronising. I have never considered it to be so, and if it is patronising it is only because the non-autistic world has made it such, including a few uses of the word in pop culture as an insult.
I do not consider autism to be a bad or a negative thing, and using person-first language makes it seem so. We use person-first to describe bad things. “He is a person with a brain injury.” “She has cancer.” “They are children with diabetes.” Yet we use expressions like, “He is nice,” and, “She is good,” and “They are charitable,” not, “She is a person with niceness,” or, “He has goodness,” or, “They are persons with charity.”
In addition to the arguments in favour of person-first language, there were also comments insisting that there should not be a choice in using person-first versus identity-first, as if we should force everybody to use autism-first language. In fact, one commenter said that it bothers them less to be threatened with murder than it does to hear person-first language. While I dislike using person-first when talking about autism, it doesn’t bother me nearly that much.
What bothers me is that some people want to take the choice away from us, whether it is the choice to use “person” first or “autism” first. Some people have a very strong preference for one or the other, while other people use both terms interchangeably. I find it a little irritating when I see or hear “people with autism” or “so and so has autism,” but I know that I don’t like being told what language to use, so I try not to pressure other people when it comes to the language they use.
I’m pretty sure that I am not going to convince anyone to change what terms they use, but I hope people will not try to take that choice away from us. If I want to the right to use the terms I prefer, then I must allow people the right as well, even if I disagree with them.