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The Last Word on Person First Language - featured August 8, 2011

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The Last Word on "Person First" Language

By: Stuart Duncan
Copyright 2011. Reprinted with the express permission of the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism as it appeared on their website July 20, 2011

The idea behind "person first" language is putting the person first, e.g., person with autism. This emphasizes the person and not the disorder. Fine. Or so I thought.

But then I heard from several (and by several, I mean a lot) of people with autism who specifically told me they prefer autistic because autism is very much a part of who they are, and how they perceive the world. They accept their autism, they embrace it, and they want to be known as autistic. Fine. Or so I thought.

And then I found out that not every autistic feels this way. Some actually do prefer "person with autism," because they "hate how much autism has made their life suck" (their words, not mine). Fine?

Well, in some education systems, the teachers are specifically directed to use "person first language" because that's what some parents insist on and it's best that the education system not aggravate the parents. Fine?

Here's the thing. If I have dozens, even hundreds of autistics telling me to call them "autistics" because it's what they want, and then I have dozens, even hundreds of parents telling me to use "person with autism" because that's what they want ... whose side do I take?


I don't take sides. It's ridiculous. Seriously, is this how we want to spend our time? Is terminology really a reason to get mad at each other? Can something this childish really begin to divide a community?

The thing is, there's a third group of people. They're the "I don't care" group. I love this group.

Because, in my experience, most autistics, who are "people with autism"... they don't care. Actually, they'd prefer you call them by their name. They're more likely to respond, that way. Furthermore, person, people, person of humanitarian decent ... whatever. I think it really doesn't much matter.

Most parents of autistic children, who are children with autism ... I think they don't care, either. Again, using their child's name is generally the best option. But those parents probably don't mind how you refer to their children so long as you do it politely, nicely, and with respect.

I fall into the "I don't care" group myself, though I actually do care: if someone tells me they prefer one label or the other, I'll do my best to respect their wishes. But if that person is in a group of people, all of whom have various wishes, or don't care ... well, get ready for a mixed bag of terminology.

When and if my son is able to tell me he prefers one label or the other, you can bet I'll stick to that term. With him. I'll still use another term with another person, if that's what that person prefers. And unless I'm told otherwise, I'll use the term that best fits the sentence. Because "the journey of my autistic child" sounds far better than "the journey of my child who has autism."

Anyway, if you're reading this because you've told me which label to use with my son, please visit the closest Walmart, buy some overalls, cowboy boots, a pink shirt with ruffles and the biggest hat you can find -- and wear that. Because I feel it's only fair that you do something for me, too.

It's not that I don't value your wishes, it's not that I don't understand exactly where you're coming from. I do. But quite frankly, I find it rude to tell me how I should refer to my own child.

If the entire world decided, unanimously, that we should use one label or the other, then I would abide.

But it's not that simple. I won't make one group of people mad to make another group happy. There are better things to focus on, things that can benefit all of us.

Our Featured Author / Organization: Stuart Duncan and the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism

About the Author: Stuart Duncan is the creator of His oldest son (Cameron, 6) has autism while his younger son (Tyler, 3) does not. He is a work from home web developer with a background in radio. He and his wife do their very best to stay educated and do whatever is necessary to ensure their children have the tools they need to thrive. He shares his stories and experiences in an effort to further grow and strengthen the online autism community, and to promote autism understanding and acceptance.

About the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism: The Thinking Person's Guide to Autism (the website and the book) exists to help people with autism and their families make sense of the bewildering array of available autism treatments and options, and determine which are worth their time, money, and energy. We also want to encourage respectful attitudes towards autistics and people with autism.

Why We Are Doing This: The Thinking Person's Guide to Autism (TPGA) is the book and website we wish had been available when our loved ones with autism were first diagnosed.

Autism misinformation clouds and is perpetuated by the Internet. We want to make accurate information about autism causation and therapies visible, accessible, and centralized.

We also want to help new autism community members develop a positive yet realistic attitude, to appreciate the strengths while supporting the struggles of our loved ones with autism.

Our attitude is cautionary yet loving -- we are interested in strong opinions, but not in negativity. Our families need their energies for evidence-based optimism!

Please support our contributors and visit the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism and StuartDuncan's website

Tags: Article Autism Newsletter 12 August 2011