Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Last Word on "Person First" Language

Stuart Duncan

The idea behind "person first" language is putting the person first, e.g., person with autism. This emphasizes the person and not the disorder. Fine. Or so I thought.

But then I heard from several (and by several, I mean a lot) of people with autism who specifically told me they prefer autistic because autism is very much a part of who they are, and how they perceive the world. They accept their autism, they embrace it, and they want to be known as autistic. Fine. Or so I thought.

And then I found out that not every autistic feels this way. Some actually do prefer "person with autism," because they "hate how much autism has made their life suck" (their words, not mine). Fine?

Well, in some education systems, the teachers are specifically directed to use "person first language" because that's what some parents insist on and it's best that the education system not aggravate the parents. Fine?

Here's the thing. If I have dozens, even hundreds of autistics telling me to call them "autistics" because it's what they want, and then I have dozens, even hundreds of parents telling me to use "person with autism" because that's what they want ... whose side do I take?


I don't take sides. It's ridiculous. Seriously, is this how we want to spend our time? Is terminology really a reason to get mad at each other? Can something this childish really begin to divide a community?

The thing is, there's a third group of people. They're the "I don't care" group. I love this group.

Because, in my experience, most autistics, who are "people with autism"... they don't care. Actually, they'd prefer you call them by their name. They're more likely to respond, that way. Furthermore, person, people, person of humanitarian decent ... whatever. I think it really doesn't much matter.

Most parents of autistic children, who are children with autism ... I think they don't care, either. Again, using their child's name is generally the best option. But those parents probably don't mind how you refer to their children so long as you do it politely, nicely, and with respect.

I fall into the "I don't care" group myself, though I actually do care: if someone tells me they prefer one label or the other, I'll do my best to respect their wishes. But if that person is in a group of people, all of whom have various wishes, or don't care ... well, get ready for a mixed bag of terminology.

When and if my son is able to tell me he prefers one label or the other, you can bet I'll stick to that term. With him. I'll still use another term with another person, if that's what that person prefers. And unless I'm told otherwise, I'll use the term that best fits the sentence. Because "the journey of my autistic child" sounds far better than "the journey of my child who has autism."

Anyway, if you're reading this because you've told me which label to use with my son, please visit the closest Walmart, buy some overalls, cowboy boots, a pink shirt with ruffles and the biggest hat you can find -- and wear that. Because I feel it's only fair that you do something for me, too.

It's not that I don't value your wishes, it's not that I don't understand exactly where you're coming from. I do. But quite frankly, I find it rude to tell me how I should refer to my own child.

If the entire world decided, unanimously, that we should use one label or the other, then I would abide.

But it's not that simple. I won't make one group of people mad to make another group happy. There are better things to focus on, things that can benefit all of us.


A version of this essay was previously published at