Autism Identity Language

Note about identity language:
We recognize the words we use to describe and define individuals and groups of people are powerful. In TRIAD’s work within school-age services we use often use identity-first language (“autistic person,” rather than “person with autism”) which is preferred by many autistic people, including TRIAD’s autistic advisors. This is in recognition that identity-first language is a growing and important part of autism culture as it more directly appreciates the value and worth of autistic persons by acknowledging autism as a central part of identity.  Rather, we strive to meet autistic learners (as well as their families and service providers) where they are to help them gain skills for supporting their ability to contact and maintain self-determined success, happiness, and joy.

TRIAD often uses person-first language in formal publications or other mediums, in which only person-first language is allowed. Additionally, person-first language is often used within diagnostic encounters with children and caregivers.

Since the latter part of the twentieth century, Autism Self-Advocates (ASAs) have been leading a social justice movement—a Neurodiversity movement—in an attempt to dismantle systemic power structures that keep autistic voices silenced. One objective in particular concerns shifting the deficit view of autism, the so-called Medical Model, to that of a difference model, or Social Model of autism. According the the social model, autism is seen as just another human variability trait, such as skin color or hair color. ASAs believe that their autism is an integral part of who they are, and as a result, prefer to refer to themselves in identity-first language (autistic persons) as opposed to person-first language (persons with autism). This practice aligns with other identity-first terminology, such as African-Americans, Lesbian/Gay/Trans/Queer, Gifted, Athletic, Jewish, and Latinx, through which persons claim these characteristics as part of their identities. Without the adoption of identity-first self-references, shifting the current deficit world-view of autism to the social model would be extremely difficult if not impossible.

On a personal level, identity-first language is extremely important to me. I know that my autism is responsible for my gifts, my talents, my deficits, and most of all, my personhood. It is an integral part of who I am, and as part of my autonomy, I claim it as a significant part of my identity.

Dr. Emelyne Bingham
Chair, Tennessee Council on Autism Spectrum Disorder
Senior Lecturer, Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University
Research Member, Vanderbilt Kennedy Center
TRIAD Advisor

This post from the Autistic Self Advocacy Network offers additional insight.