Should You Say “Person With Autism” or “Autistic Person?"

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If you or someone you know has autism, you might be wondering how you should refer to their condition.

While many have used and continue to use the term "person with autism" because they find it more polite or respectful, it is widely accepted that people who have received an autism diagnosis prefer to be referred to as an "autistic person."

This article explores the difference between person-first language and identity first language in relation to autism. It reviews the history of both person-first and identity-first language as well as data supporting the autistic community's preference for identity-first language.

Language Is Always Evolving

Language is always evolving and changing, and “best practices” around language continue to evolve as well. As we learn, terminology shifts to reflect new knowledge.

Traditionally, language surrounding “mental disorders” (conditions detailed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, also known as the DSM) is decided by licensed medical and mental health professionals.

Why the Language You Use Matters

This means that much of the language around these diagnoses is created by those outside of the communities they are discussing. As mental health and disability advocacy have become more mainstream, communities have vocalized their preferences and values in these conversations.

We Must Consider the Voices of the Autistic Community

No community is a monolith, and this includes the autistic community. There will always be individual preferences, and it is important to honor the individual on a case-by-case basis. However, when we are talking, writing, and researching about the larger community, we must take into account community voices when deciding what language to use.

What Is Person-First Language?

Person-First Language (PFL) refers to terminology that puts the person ahead of the diagnosis. It aims to frame the diagnosis as something the person “has” rather than something that they “are.” Referring to “people with disabilities” is an example of PFL.

Why Person-First Language Was Championed

PFL was popularized with the intent of reducing dehumanizing language and attitudes around many disabilities. PFL aims to “require the use of respectful language when referring to people with disabilities.”

When PFL was first introduced in 1974, many members of the autistic community preferred this terminology because of the stigma that comes with being identified with a diagnosis.

In some instances, PFL can be a tool to fight stigma. For example, it can be harmful to say “schizophrenics” rather than “people with schizophrenia.” However, many communities find PFL isolating because it separates the individual from their diagnosis.

Autistic people experience the world differently than non-autistic people. Their perception and experience are fundamentally distinct due to their autism. Because many diagnoses lead to stigma, a shared way of referring to the diagnosis helps create a sense of community among people with the same condition.

What Is Identity-First Language?

Identity-First Language (IFL) is language and terminology that puts the diagnosis or identity at the forefront.

Some communities find that, although well-intentioned, PFL can sometimes become dehumanizing and stigmatizing, such as referring to someone who “struggles with” a diagnosis.

IFL pushes back against this by simply naming the diagnosis rather than commenting on how it impacts the individual.

Historically, organizations have used IFL to emphasize deficits and justify reduced autonomy. Pushing back against these practices has had a positive impact on self-advocacy movements, but currently many groups do not prefer PFL.

Identity-First vs. Person-First Language and Autism

Individual preferences are always the first priority when interacting with one person. However, when speaking about the community as a whole, the best practice is to determine what the majority of community members prefer.

In the autistic community, surveys about language preference consistently indicate a preference for IFL, indicating that the best practice is to use the term “autistic people” rather than “people with autism.”

The writing style guide of the American Psychological Association continues to use “people with autism,” despite recommendations from the community indicating a preference for identity-first language.

The Significance of Identity-First Language

In research and clinical work, PFL is typically used when taking a recovery orientation to treatment. For example, a doctor refers to “patients with cancer” rather than “cancerous patients” because the goal is to treat and eliminate the cancer.

Groups aiming to “cure” autism tend to use PFL when referring to autism and are generally considered to be a form of eugenics and elevate the voices of non-autistic people while being unresponsive to feedback from the autistic community.

Many autistic people have written and spoken about why IFL is important to them and why it is generally preferred over PFL. PFL implies that the person is the same with or without their diagnosis, and the majority of the autistic community agrees that their autism is a fundamental part of who they are.

Neurodivergent conditions, including autism, are brain differences, meaning that they impact who the person is.

Some autistic individuals prefer PFL or state that they have no preference, so when addressing them, use what they prefer. But when referring to the autistic community at large, the best practice is to determine what the majority of community members prefer because true allies value community voices.

Multiple surveys conducted over the past decade have shown that, while context plays a role in what language is most appropriate to use, IFL is generally preferred by the autistic community.

'Autistic Not Weird' Survey Results

  • One survey conducted in March 2022 by Autistic Not Weird (an advocacy organization run by and for autistic people) received more than 11,000 responses.
  • Just over 76% of autistic respondents indicated a preference for IFL, or that they always wanted to be referred to as an “autistic person” rather than a “person with autism.”
  • Just under 4% indicated a strong preference for “person with autism.”
  • 15% indicated that either term felt appropriate, and about 5% declined to answer the question.
  • Overall, this data points to a community preference for IFL in relation to autism.

Autistic Voices

In researching for this article, several autistic people provided their insight into their own preferences around PFL and IFL.

Similar to the Autistic Not Weird survey, most indicated a strong preference for IFL. A few people indicated no preference or noted that PFL used to be the standard.

Thoughts on PFL and IFL From Autistic People

  • Cris, an autistic artist, writer, and research biologist, shared: “Most autistics consider it to be who they are. Identity versus person shouldn’t be a thing because they are one and the same. I am autistic. It’s not an item I carry, can put down, it’s who I am.”
  • Lyr, an autistic artist, said: “Autism makes my brain work somewhat different at a fundamental level, and thus it is fundamental to who I am. Identity first all the way for me. Plus it’s much less clunky to say.”
  • SV, who is also autistic, stated: “I’m not a person with tallness, I’m a tall person. I’m not a cancerous person, I’m a person with cancer. One is part of my existence, my identity, the way I experience the world. The other is external to me, something I struggle with. I am not a person with autism. I am autistic.”

Resources

For more information about the autistic community, see the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, the Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network, and the Asperger/Autism Network.

A Word From Verywell

The best practice when speaking to or about any community must emphasize community voices and needs above all else. Always prioritize individual preferences, but when speaking in general, the overall preference of the community should be the priority. When it comes to autistic voices, the current language preference is overwhelmingly identity-first language.

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. DC.Gov. Office of Disability Rights. People First Respectful Language Modernization Act of 2006.

  2. Crocker AF, Smith SN. Person-first language: are we practicing what we preach?J Multidiscip Healthc. 2019;12:125-129. Published 2019 Feb 8.

  3. AUCD. Portrayal of People with Disabilities.

  4. Autistic Not Weird. Results and Analysis of the Autistic Not Weird 2022 Autism Survey.

  5. APA Style. Disability.

  6. Autistic Self Advocacy Network. Identity-First Language.

  7. Shakes P, Cashin A. Identifying language for people on the autism spectrum: a scoping review. Issues in Mental Health Nursing. 2019;40(4):317-325.

  8. Anderson-Chavarria M. The autism predicament: models of autism and their impact on autistic identity. Disability & Society. Published online February 12, 2021:1-21.

By Amy Marschall, PsyD
Dr. Amy Marschall is a clinical psychologist who works with children and adolescents. She is certified in TF-CBT and telemental health.