Identity first or person first?

Which should we use?

  • Identity-first – Autistic person
  • Person-first – a person with Autism

It is probably too sweeping to say all those caring for Autistic people use person-first language or that all Autistic people prefer identity-first. However, research in 2016 surveyed over 3000 people (Autistic people, carers, and the broader support network) and found preference was influenced not only by whether the person had a diagnosis of Autism, but also by how the person viewed Autism.

For example:

  • Autism as a disability or a Neurodiversity
  • Autism as a neurology one is born with or something that happens to a person after birth – perhaps because of environmental factors?
  • Autism as central to one’s identity or an addition?
  • Autism as a problem which needs to be “cured”, or a way of being which should be accepted and supported?

Another study in 2020 talking to Autistic adults, found the majority took exception to person-first language.

Many Autistic people, in using identity-first language, do so in part to reclaim the word Autism – to reframe it as positive. In this instance the belief is the neurological wiring is integral to themselves – there is no need to say “Person with” as it is surely obvious the person is a person, and more specifically that Autism is not an add-on.

Yet in common parlance, phrases often imply it was something a person has, almost as if it were something they might have caught, or something which had been done to them. Literature, seems particularly careless in this respect with reports and research material stating:

       “…at greater risk of Autism.”

       “…suffers from Autism.”

In fact, Autism fundamentally shapes who we are. Our neurology influences every aspect of our life, some of it in challenging ways, but also in very positive ways.

All that said, we should not be identified solely as Autistic, it is simply one interesting, indisputable thing about us. Alone it does not provide a complete picture.

Jim Sinclair, a pioneer of the Autism rights movement, and co-founder of the Autism International Network in 1993 had the following to say:

“Autism isn’t something a person has, or a shell that a person is trapped inside. There’s no normal child hidden behind the autism. Autism is a way of being. It is pervasive; it colours every experience, every sensation, perception, thought, emotion, and encounter, every aspect of existence. It is not possible to separate the autism from the person – and if it were possible, the person you’d have left would not be the same person you started with.”

For more discussion on this issue, there is an interesting article by AutismandoughtismsShould we say a person has Autism, or that a person is Autistic? – it is interesting to note, the online poll following the article (1,027 respondents when we last looked in April 2023) found 41% said ‘either is fine’.

So, while Autilistic’s preference tends to be identity-first, really it should be about individual choice and perhaps the best thing to do is ask the Autistic person which they prefer