Connor Tom Keating, Lydia Hickman, Joan Leung, Ruth Monk, Alicia Montgomery, Hannah Heath, and Sophie Sowden, “Autism-related language preferences of English-speaking individuals across the globe: A mixed methods investigation,” Autism Research, 2022

A man walking on a concrete ground, leaving a shadow behind him, by Bob Price. Image from Pixabay is licensed under Pixabay license.

When referring to people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), there are typically two approaches, person-first or identity-first. Some argue that person-first language, which places the person before their condition (“person with autism”), is less stigmatizing and suggests that the individual can be more than the label they have been assigned. However, new research from Keating and colleagues found that this approach may not be preferable for people with ASD. 

Keating and colleagues administered an online survey to English-speaking people with an ASD diagnosis around the world to learn their preferences. 654 people who had ASD from 30 different countries completed the survey and shared their opinions.  

They found that the vast majority of people, 75% to 90% (varying by country), preferred identity-first language, such as “autistic person” or “neurodivergent person.” Respondents felt that person-first language such as “person with autism” separates autism from their identity and suggests that their autism is a defect that can be removed. As one participant said, “Using terms like ‘person with autism’ feels like an attempt to separate it from me as if it were a disease, and these terms are commonly used by groups of people who ignore autistic voices and support things like a ‘cure’ for autism.” 

Interestingly, while 66%-73% of participants endorsed the use of “autistic” as a noun (such as “an autistic”), others felt it was historically dehumanizing and reduced them to a diagnosis. One respondent said, ”I do generally try to avoid noun omission,” using autistic rather than autistic person, because “omission of a noun is often used to subtlety dehumanize marginalized groups (e.g. “blacks” vs “black people’…)” Some specified that,  while the autistic community has reclaimed the use of “autistic” as a noun, it should not be used this way by non-autistic people.

While these results suggest a general preference for identity-first language, they also reveal the diversity of opinion within the autistic community. Since there is not a consensus, the researchers recommend asking autistic people about their language preferences. When it is not possible to ask for language preferences, Keating and colleagues hope that the results of this survey can be used as a general framework. 

This study reminds us that language is not only descriptive but also performative of how people are identified and described. Language can have an influence on how society views and treats people–autistic or otherwise.