If you’ve read any of my previous articles or attended one of my talks, you might have noticed that I refer to myself as an ‘autistic person’ rather than a ‘person with autism’. I do this because I prefer something called identity first language over person first language.
This wasn’t always the case for me. Identity and the language associated with it, can be a very personal journey unique to the individual. When I first got diagnosed back in 2016, I struggled to make sense of what autism meant for me and to me.
At that point in my life, I’d spent nearly 3 decades thinking I was a monster who didn’t belong anywhere and I was also dealing with some serious internalised ableism towards autism. It took me years to shake that off and embrace the quirk monster. When I publicly ‘outed’ myself on Twitter after my diagnosis, I didn’t write that I’m autistic. I wrote “I have Asperger’s” (person first language). A few days later, a member of the autistic community asked me if I’d learned about identity first language yet. They were very kind to me and with gentle positivity, explained the two different types and invited me to explore them for myself.
While the journey to self acceptance took years, identity first language felt right the moment I found it. For me, autism is a state of being, not a state of having. It’s not an affliction, it’s not my imaginary friend and I certainly don’t keep it in my purse. I feel that identity first language celebrates the unbreakable and intrinsic bond I share with my autism. You can’t separate the ‘me’ from my autism because it’s present in everything I think and feel and do and it’s an incredibly beautiful thing.
To be clear, I am not saying that anyone who uses person first language is ableist or doing anything wrong. How a person refers to themselves is their choice — emphasis on ‘themselves’ and ‘choice’. No one gets to tell another person how they should or shouldn’t refer to themselves. It’s a personal choice that has absolutely nothing to do with anyone else. Autistic people, just like everyone else, deserve to have their choices honoured and respected.
Pay attention to the language autistic people use to describe themselves and if you don’t know how an autistic person would like you to refer to them, just ask. Try saying something like “I know about your autism, how would you like me to refer to you? For example, do you prefer identity first language or person first language?” Then whatever the answer is, do that. It’s that easy. If you happen to make a mistake — and you probably will because you’re human too — don’t stress. It’s OK. If an autistic person pulls you up on your language around autism, resist the urge to get defensive! Simply apologise and thank that person for helping you learn. Because that’s all we’re trying to do.
This short article is a lived experience example shared from my life to help you understand a little bit more about what it’s like to be autistic. I am just one autistic person in a really big world. No two of us are exactly alike. I can only speak for myself and to my own experiences. If you want to know what other autistic people think — and you should — look them up, talk to them and read their work too. We all have our own voices and this is only mine. This article is part of a mini content series I publish to LinkedIn when I can. You can view the other articles in this series via my LinkedIn profile.