Anti-Semantism: Is it “Autistic Person” or “Person with Autism”?: An Introduction to Person-First Language

Welcome to Anti-Semantism, a section of Angry Autie that tackles language use, especially as it pertains to autism. Words are very profound and powerful things. People know this in the abstract but yet continue using words imprecisely. It may seem like what I’m doing here is just nit-picking to most people but I find the way that people use words to be extremely revealing, more revealing than they may want. It is possible to call people out on bullshit based on their word-choice. I believe that a lot of problems arise from a misunderstanding in communication, which people with autism supposedly lack. In Anti-Semantism, there’ll be diatribes against certain terms, an analysis of how certain terms are used, and more. Any topic that is about language use in autism discourse will fall under the “Anti-Semantism” label.

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I just stumbled upon a concept of autism discourse that I’ll admit I’ve never heard of before. That concept is called “person-first language.” What it does is call attention to the subtle yet potent distinction between calling an autie “an autistic person” vs. “a person with autism.” People who advocate person-first language prefer calling us “people with autism” as opposed to “autistic people.” This is something that people who write about or discuss autism should be keenly aware of.

One pro of “person with autism” is that “autism” is unfortunately a pretty cumbersome and almost dirty word in our society. It carries the weight of pathology, failure, and mental illness with it wherever it goes. The idea behind “person with autism” is that “person” coming first in the noun will add a dimension of humanity and offset the suggestion of pathology. But that’s all it does and frankly, it doesn’t help our cause.

On the other hand, “autistic person” sounds far more ambiguous than “person with autism” and thus, has a more poetic quality. Were the weight of “autism” not so great and evocative, I would strongly advocate the “autistic person” label. It suggests that the person has certain characteristics of autism without carrying the distinction of being autistic as clearly and distinctly as “person with autism.” It says nothing about the subject being on the spectrum and it doesn’t have to; it doesn’t really matter if the person is on the spectrum or not in this case. “Person with autism” makes a clear statement that the subject is on the spectrum.

It’s like the distinction between “schizophrenic” and “person with schizophrenia” in everyday discourse. Even though the colloquial use of “schizophrenic” bears minimal resemblance to actual schizophrenia, it’s merely suggestive and not meant to be taken as a statement on what schizophrenia really is or to suggest that the subject suffers from schizophrenia. Likewise, if you take away the weight of the word “autism,” saying that someone is autistic could suggest that they have certain characteristics without suggesting that they were actually on the spectrum. Let’s face it: autism is a very broad condition with a variety of symptoms and quirks. Any normal person could look at a list of characteristics that auties are known to have and relate to quite a handful of them. Having the label “autistic person” would offer more leeway in describing such people.

As an added bonus, if the person really does have a formal diagnosis of autism, then it is accepting of the fact that it is a part of his or her identity. It recognizes that autism, rather than being a disease, is a tightly integral part of our identity. “Person with autism” undermines that aspect by attempting to separate identity and neurology.

The only drawback with “autistic person” that “person with autism” addresses is that the use of “autistic person” implies that you are defining the person by virtue of their autism or autistic traits but I think that this is viewed as something to avoid because “autism” is such a hot-button topic. But when it comes down to it, it’s like suggesting that there’s a distinction between “Asian person” and “person with Asianness.” This is just another vain attempt at political correctness.

In conclusion, it’s a mixed bag because of the implications of the word “autism” but I think I’ll go with “autistic person.” I’ll vary the language up a bit from now on depending on what I’m trying to say about the person, hypothetical or not, in question. I’ll use the term ‘autie’ when I’m not interested in making a distinction or when making a distinction is not important. I’m not going back to change any of my language because I want to watch the use of my language evolve.

What do you guys think? I’d be very interested in gathering some other perspectives on this.

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2 thoughts on “Anti-Semantism: Is it “Autistic Person” or “Person with Autism”?: An Introduction to Person-First Language

  1. Pingback: How To Detect Bullshit In The Media When It Comes To Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities | Angry Autie

  2. Calling me an Autistic person defines me by my neurology no more than calling me a white person defines me by my skin tone, whereas calling me a person with autism tells me that the person saying it views my neurotype as undesirable, thus telling me that they wish I didn’t exist. That’s why I find person-first language insulting and separationist when applied to me in the context of my Autism. After all, would you call me (or yourself) a ‘person with maleness)? I don’t think so.

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