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Advocating for Identity-First Language in College as an Autistic Adult

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I grew up in the 1990s when many people were just figuring out that autism existed. It was just starting to be diagnosed widely. As a child, I really didn’t understand much other than teachers seemed to hate me. My mom was recommended to place me in a home because I was a “burden” to her, the teacher, and to society as a whole. I was in middle school when this happened and these words are etched into me today. I decided then that I’d go into education so students wouldn’t suffer at the hands of horrible teachers like the one I had.

I quickly learned the problem is with how teachers are taught about autism. The first mistake is often the language used to refer to people who are Autistic. Over and over we’re told that we should use the words “with autism” because we’re people first and not the condition. The idea that we are more than the condition becomes the main point of conversation, instead of discussing how autism is integral to the identity of many Autistic people.

Professors will often argue against anyone who supports identity-first language. What they don’t realize is that the Autistic community prefers Autistic, and “correcting” Autistics in their classes and on social media posts is ableist and harmful. In fact, the entire way professors are taught to teach about our language is misinformed and incorrect.

How can the Autistic community move forward when the higher education system continues to disregard us? Autistics are not getting through to colleges on our own; we continue to inform them of correct usage but are ignored extensively and told we’re incorrect.

My own poll, on the Autistic and Teaching Facebook Page in June of 2020, polled 7.1 thousand Autistics and found that 90% prefer “Autistic,” not “with autism.” When will college institutions catch up and start using the correct language for our community? Once they start to change their language and inform their students of the correct and preferred identity-first language, then maybe, just maybe, it will start to trickle down, and then finally the world might start to respect our preferred language.

Poll of readers showed 90% prefer Autistic and 10% person with autism.

Getty image by Anna Stills.

Originally published: March 15, 2021
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