By Adria Nassim
Recently, a friend—let’s call her Grace—came to me asking for my opinion. Someone on the autism spectrum had told her not to use the phrase “this person has autism,” but instead to refer to them as autistic. She brought to mind an interesting question: What should I call you?
Grace asked me what my preference was, and I told her my parents had always made a point to emphasize that I had autism as well as other diagnoses, but it wasn’t the only part of my life. There is so much more to me than just a diagnosis like autism.
People-first or Identity-first?
However, the debate over person-first language has become a very controversial topic in recent years. Some individuals with autism prefer the use of the term “autistic” or “disabled.” They believe that having autism is part of their personal identity, much like the way a member of the Black community might consider their racial characteristics, or someone of the Muslim faith might consider their belief systems.
According to the Association for University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD), identity-first language is more commonly preferred by those who believe their diagnosis is a positive cultural identifier. This view is found most commonly in the autistic, deaf, and blind communities.
However, some parents and professionals prefer to say, “she has autism,” believing that the phrase emphasizes the fact that their loved one with autism is more than a medical condition.
In my opinion, the way we identify or refer to ourselves when we talk about our disability is a matter of personal preference, and there really is no right or wrong way. However, it’s important to emphasize that everyone with a disability will have a different experience and each person’s unique experience is valid, just as members of a race or religious group have their own unique experiences but can share the same race or religion.
Be respectful of an individual’s choice
Whatever preference a person chooses, I think it’s important to be mindful of that and respect it, but also understand that others may choose differently. I know that, particularly with autism, being able to consider different perspectives can sometimes be difficult, but it’s important to keep in mind that just because someone thinks differently that they are not wrong.
If you are ever unsure what language is most appropriate, never hesitate to ask.