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“Child With Autism” Or “Autistic Child”?

Updated: Aug 25, 2022

Autism is a developmental disorder characterized by deficits in communication and social skills, as well as restrictive and repetitive behaviors. Autism is a spectrum disorder, with a wide range of symptom presentations. For decades, the primary vernacular when referring to autistic individuals was to use person-first language. Let's explore why there has been a push in recent years to move toward an identity-first approach.


What Is Person-First Language?

First things first, what is the difference? "Person with autism" uses person-first-language (PFL). This language puts the person first before the diagnosis.


Why Do We Use Person-First Language?

Autism awareness has greatly increased over the last several decades. As such, the stigma surrounding a diagnosis has changed. In the past, when autism diagnoses were much rarer, it was believed that person-first language was the most respectful language that emphasized the individual as a person, rather than solely their diagnosis. This is similar to other diagnoses such as bipolar or ADHD. Referring to someone as a "bipolar individual" would typically be frowned upon and considered dehumanizing.


What is Identity-First Language?

Identity-first language puts the diagnosis at the forefront, with the person second. "Autistic individual/child/adult" uses identity-first language.


Why Do Some People Use Identity-First Language?

Many autistic adults in recent years have advocated for using identity-first language. This is because, unlike with many other diagnoses, autistic individuals often consider their diagnosis to be a major part of who they are as a person. In one survey conducted in March 2022, the autistic community overwhelmingly supported identity-first language, with 76% in support. While this clearly does not represent all autistic individuals, it is helpful to understand what a majority of a group prefers.


So Which Should You Use?

While the reasoning for initially using PFL makes sense, I strongly urge the use of identity-first language. However, individual preferences should always be considered. If you are unsure what a particular person prefers, just ask!


Why Does it Matter?

If you are not autistic, you may be wondering, why does it matter? Isn't this irrelevant? No. To many autistic adults, this absolutely matters. Identity-first emphasizes how their autism diagnosis plays a major role in who they are. It also reinforces their diagnosis as a positive cultural identifier. Autistic individuals' perception of the world is different and their input should be respected, especially for something as personal as the way in which others refer to them.


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