Mind your language.
“She is autistic.” “ She is a person with autism”. At a first glance, these two statements communicate the same message — this is a person who identifies as autistic. However, there are tiny nuances between these statements that need to be addressed and understood by neurotypical people. When I was diagnosed, I didn’t know the difference until I started speaking with the wider autistic community and discovered that some of the language used to shape the autistic narrative can be harmful.
The first statement, which is ‘Identity-first language’, is how I prefer to be identified. I am autistic. Not only does it roll off the tongue better than “I am a person with autism” it shows that my neurological differences are a part of me. In fact, they are me. I cannot remove a chunk of my brain and decide to leave it at home one day so I can be like everyone else. My autism is an inherent part of my identity, just like my ethnicity and sexual orientation. It cannot be altered or removed. Saying that I am ‘with’ something implies that the thing I am ‘with’ is just an accessory and gets in the way of the ‘real me’.
There are some people, however, who do actually prefer to identify as a “person with autism”, otherwise known as ‘person-first language’. I do know a few autistic people who prefer this language or don’t have a preference, although, person-first language is widely used within the medical field and among those who are still under the illusion that autism can be cured. In fact, some parents with autistic children believe that autism is not part of their child’s identity and that it’s something they ‘have’, like the flu that can easily be remedied with some bed rest and cough syrup…Can you see why this type of language is harmful? Saying that you ‘have’ something means that you can easily ‘not have it’ and it can therefore be cured.
I’ve been doing lots of research on this topic as it is a contentious issue and causes a rift within the community. I personally do not feel comfortable with a neurotypical ‘autism advocate’ or doctor referring to me with ‘person-first language’ no matter how much of an autism ‘expert’ they are. I think it erases our autistic strengths, and makes autism feel like a sickness. Those who prefer ‘person-first language’ argue that it puts the person before the disability, and emphasises the worth of the individual by recognising them as a person instead of a condition. This sounds great in theory, but I don’t need language to reassure me that I am worthy. I know my disability does not affect my self-worth. All that the ‘person-first language’ does is reinforce that autism is something to be ashamed of and must be hidden.
This is probably one of the most confusing things about autism and my goal is to make it easy for non-autistic people to feel comfortable talking about autism. However, semantics are getting in the way of these open conversations. I came across this analogy that will hopefully make this topic a little easier to digest.
A cancer patient is referred to as “a person with cancer”. We wouldn’t say “a cancerous person”. Now, person-first language advocates would suggest that the same label should be applied to autistic people as both ‘cancer’ and autism’ are ‘conditions’. However, this is such a flawed argument! Cancer is a disease that kills people. There is absolutely nothing positive about having cancer. It doesn’t shape our thoughts or how we express our personality. It’s an unfortunate disease that, I’m sure everyone would agree, would benefit a person if there was a cure. How can a comparison be made between a killer disease and a neurological difference?
I’m hoping that the medical field will be more aware of the semantics of autism, especially so called ‘autism researchers’ who have a responsibility to conduct research on autistic people and communicate these findings with the world. I also hope that parents of autistic children will realise the damage that ‘person first language’ will have on their autistic child as they begin to grow into their identity.