The blog below will explain what identity and person-first terminology are, what their connotations are and when is appropriate to use them. It will also explain which groups of people prefer each language and which one I recommend you use.
What is identity-first language?
Identity-first language recognises that the individual is shaped by their disability. For autism, this means you use phrases like ‘autistic person’ or ‘they are autistic’. Autistic self-advocates overwhelmingly prefer identity-first language. Similarly, many autistic support services are increasingly using identity-first language. By using identity-first language you show that you understand that autism shapes a person’s entire life. Therefore, to argue that someone is a ‘person with autism’ when autism has influenced them to the core levels does not prioritise this perspective. Autism is not separate, it is them and their whole identity.
What is person-first language?
Person-first language prioritises the individual. Most frequently used by parents and people who work with autistic individuals, they argue that the humanity of the individual should be emphasised. Some autistic people prefer this language. However, you should always ask how someone wants to be described. People who use person-first language want autistic people to be seen as more than autistic. In this sense, you would refer to someone as a ‘person with autism’ or ‘they have autism’.
The majority of autistic self-advocates support the use of identity-first language as they argue that autism is inherent to their being and they would not be the same person without it. Autism shapes how someone interacts and processes the world around them. If a person has grown since birth seeing the world through autistic eyes then it is hard to argue that autism is separate to one’s being. Therefore, using identity-first language recognises that autistic people would not be who they are without autism. Additionally, autistic self-advocates state that while the difference between identity-first and person-first language might seem small, the connotations attached to person-first language are significant.
People who prefer identity-first language often argue that to be autistic is not an insult, and using person-first language perpetuates ableist notions of inhumanity and suffering. In their view, the argument for person-first language suggests that autism is something to be ashamed of. To suggest that someone is a person ‘with autism’ rings as if it is something they are suffering with. This is deeply ableist.
Advocates of person-first language often say they they prefer it because it encourages people to remember autistic people’s humanity. These advocates think they people need reminding that autistic people are people. It is discomforting to think that this is something that neurotypical people would need reminding of. This is another reason why autistic self-advocates dislike person-first language because the reasoning behind it suggests that autistic people are fundamentally inhuman. On the flipside, autistic self-advocates argue that if you need reminding of an autistic person’s existence as a person with dreams, opinions and rights then that’s a problem with you. Autism is nothing to be ashamed of and autistic people should not live their lives feeling lesser than those around them.
As well as this, the people who promote the use of person-first language are often not autistic. Autistic self-advocates argue that people should use the language that they request. By speaking over autistic people, non-autistic promoters of person-first language are showing that they don’t see autistic people as equal in a conversation about them. The bottom line is you should refer to someone how they want to be referred to. For most autistic people, this is using identity-first language.
This debate is important because language matters. To be see as autistic was bad for a long time. By framing autism as something separate, person-first language perpetuates this shaming. By contrast, identity-first language encourages autistic people to be proud of their identity and recognise how it has shaped them.
Hopefully you will have learned something about the difference between person-first and identity-first language. Also, why it is important to discuss these terms. If you are still unsure on which phrasing to use, I would recommend you use identity-first language. As discussed, autistic self-advocates and organisations vastly prefer ‘they are autistic’, and ‘autistic person’. However, always use the language that a person requests you use – regardless of your opinion. Because at the end of the day, you should listen to autistic people and what they want.
Have you ever wondered what the difference between neurodiverse, neurodivergent and neurotypical is? Read this article here to find out!
Alternatively, if you are looking to relax, take a look at our list of 6 TV shows with good disability representation.