Navigating Autism Terminology: person-first vs. identity-first language

Navigating Autism Terminology: person-first vs. identity-first language

As an autism specialist educator, I am acutely aware of the profound impact that language has on shaping perceptions, attitudes, and interactions when it comes to individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Language is more than just a means of communication; it shapes the way we think, feel, and relate to the world around us. When discussing autism, language takes on an even greater significance.

The terms we use have the potential to either empower or disempower, to promote understanding or create misconceptions. It’s crucial that we navigate this linguistic landscape with sensitivity and accuracy.

Person-First or Identity-First: The Language Debate

One of the central debates in autism terminology revolves around whether to use person-first language (e.g., “person with autism”) or identity-first language (e.g., “autistic person”). Both sides have valid perspectives. Person-first language emphasizes the individual beyond their condition, while identity-first language acknowledges autism as an intrinsic part of someone’s identity.

To truly understand this discourse, we must recognize that language preferences vary within the autism community. Some individuals embrace identity-first language, asserting that autism is an integral aspect of who they are.

Others prefer person-first language, highlighting that they are individuals first, with autism being just one facet of their lives. Understanding this distinction is a fundamental step in respecting and honoring the diversity of perspectives within the autism community.

The Call for Empathy and Understanding

Beyond the semantics, understanding autism terminology is a call for empathy and understanding. By using accurate and respectful language, we show our commitment to breaking down barriers, reducing stigma, and promoting inclusive environments. When we take the time to learn the terminology, we bridge gaps in communication and foster connections that are essential for providing effective support.

Ilse Kilian-Ross

Ilse Kilian-Ross is the owner of Amazing K, a registered ECD and Partial Care Facility in Johannesburg. Amazing K is a private adhd school, autism school and therapy centre for children from age 2 - 6 years where learners receive the best of both the schooling and therapy world. The autism school offers Individualized Education Programs, Speech- and Augmentive Alternative Communication (AAC) therapy as well as a full and adapted Academic Curriculum.