Why Many Autistic People Prefer Identity-First Language

I remember back when I started working in the human services field in 2004, long before I knew that I had any sort of disabilities. It was drilled into all of us trainees’ heads that we must use person-first language: that is, to put the “person before the disability.” We were taught to say things like “a person with cerebral palsy,” “a person with epilepsy,” and finally, “a person with autism.” At the time, I thought it made sense. After all, we are people, first and foremost.

Now, after having learned of my place in the developmental disabilities and mental health communities, and listening to others, I feel differently. To separate a disability from the person gives it a stigma; it implies that the disability is something negative, or a disease, when in fact, it is an integral part of one’s personhood. Some people may argue that “I wouldn’t call a person with cancer cancerous…” but that is not the same thing. Cancer is a disease; a disability is a different way of being.

This is why identity-first language is important to many of us. If something is truly a part of what makes us who we are, should we not use it to describe ourselves? People use descriptors such as gender, race, heritage, physical traits and so on all the time. Disability is no different. It’s not like we’re being “defined” by this “horrible thing” that needs to be separated from us. Autism, or any disability for that matter, is not something one carries with them like an accessory, but rather part of what makes up who they are. To separate autism from someone would be to make them a totally different person. It’s an operating system.

Therefore, identity-first language is very important to many people in the autistic community. I can’t speak for everyone, but most people on the spectrum I’ve talked to have agreed. It’s not taking away from the person by any means, but rather this type of language is like an enhancer. After all, it’s rather obvious that human beings are people, and if one needs to be told that to figure it out, that’s a whole different issue to begin with!

I’m female. I’m Caucasian. I’m a brunette. I’m an animal lover. I’m a geek. I’m autistic.

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