Identity-First Language in Autism: Everything To Know

Identity-First Language in Autism: Everything To Know

When referring to someone with autism, there are two popular language styles: person-first and identity-first. The difference between saying “person with autism” and “autistic person” changes the emphasis you are putting on a person and their diagnosis, and it’s very important to understand that each individual person may have a different preference in this matter. 

One in 36 children in the United States is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and it is our job as caretakers, family, friends, and human beings to raise awareness and influence positive attitudes toward autism. Language is so important, as a simple change in terminology can largely impact attitudes. 

What Is Person-First Language? 

Person-first language is exactly as it sounds: putting the person ahead of the diagnosis when speaking about autism. When someone does not want to be identified first by their diagnosis, they typically opt for terms such as “person with autism” or “child with autism.” The use of person-first language aims to show that they are a person before they are autistic.

This language aims to emphasize one’s humanity before any characteristic that could describe them. Person-first language is praised for being inclusive and when used, it shows that you are being thoughtful and intentional about your language choice. However, those who prefer identity-first language worry that it can be perceived as avoiding the term autism, unintentionally making it sound like a negative label.

At the end of the day, it is crucial to respect one’s preference and how they want others to refer to them. Always ask someone what their preference is and adhere to their choice. 

In recent years, person-first has grown to be the preferred language of the autistic community. However, with ever-evolving terminology, it’s important to consider the reasons that someone may choose identity-first language when describing themselves, too.

What Is Identity-First Language? 

Identity-first language is the opposite of person-first language. Identity-first places emphasis on the diagnosis first as a way to hold power and show pride in one’s diagnosis. Rather than “child with autism,” people who prefer this language prefer the term “autistic child” or “autistic individual.” 

This type of language is often avoided in an effort to recognize humanity before a condition, but a portion of the autism community feels that this makes their diagnosis sound suppressed. Identity-first language is a way to self-advocate and express that autism is a part of their unique identity.

Many individuals in the autism community see autism as an integral part of who they are and something that they feel sets them apart. This can be similar to referencing things like gender or ethnicity. Many would not often say, “That is a child who is a girl.” This situation is similar as many feel that “person with autism” unnecessarily lengthens the title.

This is typically preferred by those who strive outwardly to spread autism awareness. This simple swap in terminology can hold heavy weight to individuals promoting acceptance, self-advocacy, and embracing neurodiversity. Ultimately, whichever language is their preference, many feel very strongly and have their own personal reasons as to why.

What Does the Research Say About Identity-First Language? 

In the field of autism research, many journals and researchers, like Gernsbacher, have significantly contributed to the discourse on language preferences among individuals with autism. 

Studies examining identity-first language emphasize its growing acceptance within parts of the autism community. Researchers from Sage Journals conducted a study of both the autistic community and professionals and caretakers who work or live with people with autism, and their findings were particularly interesting. They found that 87% of the autistic adults surveyed were okay with identity-first language. However, the majority of professionals or parents preferred person-first as a way to show respect and intentionality. 

Essentially, this shows us that person-first language is considered the most respectful choice, but in asking the individuals themselves, they may have a different preference. This highlights the significance of language choices in fostering self-advocacy and empowerment and reminds us of the importance of asking about someone’s preference. 

Gernsbacher's work dives into the complexities of language use, shedding light on the multiple perspectives within the community. The research details ways that both language usages can appear stigmatizing. She states that people who use person-first language are typically well-intended and trying to be respectful but can unintentionally demonstrate bias if that is not the preference of the individual they are talking to or about.

When considering healthcare and psychiatry, identity-first language can have both positive and negative effects on perception. When in a healthcare setting specifically, the language used can make individuals with autism feel as if they are being labeled by their condition. 

Professional standards make it crucial for healthcare professionals and those working in psychiatry to hold the utmost respect for their patients, so it is critical that they stay on top of their patients' preferences.

This research is so important as it is used to help shape guidelines for professional organizations, such as the American Psychological Association (APA). With the ever-evolving perspective and preferences of the autism community and communities of other disabilities, the APA periodically updates its manual to best reflect any changes and to help the general public use the proper terminology. 

This impacts how professionals communicate in writing and professional settings. Style guides like the APA are dynamic and ever-changing to present the most up-to-date research and information.

Why Is Language Preference Important in the Autism Community? 

Language has a huge impact on one’s mental health and self-perception. How someone refers to themselves holds huge weight in the way they choose to view their autism diagnosis and express their identity. 

Those who may have recently received this diagnosis or who are processing what a diagnosis means may particularly benefit from having this sense of control in how they choose to express and describe themselves. The period following a diagnosis often comes with a range of emotions, such as uncertainty and self-discovery, so respecting someone’s language preference lets them actively shape their identity on their own. 

Language preference gives people the power to describe their condition on their own terms. Asking about, respecting, and using someone's preferred language reduces stigma and makes a person feel valued. This leads to positive self-perception, knowing that others respect and want to use their chosen language, and decreases any negativity or stereotyping associated with alternative language use.

Language preferences can also affect accessibility and inclusivity for adults and children with autism. Being mindful and accommodating helps ensure effective communication and understanding. 

Creating inclusive learning environments in educational settings is crucial for the well-being and development of all students, including those with autism. Picture a child with autism in a classroom surrounded by peers, but the language used to refer to them makes them feel uncomfortable and isolated. The impact of language on a child's sense of belonging and self-esteem is vital.

When someone with autism self-advocates by sharing their personal experiences or preferences, it takes a great deal of courage and empowerment. It provides insight into their unique needs, communication styles, and sensitivities. This is an invitation for understanding and collaboration. It allows educators and friends to tailor their approach, creating an environment that supports the child's learning and social development.

How Is Identity-First Language Used in Other Communities?

The autistic community is not the only one that utilizes identity-first language. This idea is used in various communities and settings in casual conversation, too. Like those in the autism community, some are okay with it, while others prefer person-first language. Those who prefer identity-first use it as a way to communicate their condition and place their identity, disability, or condition before themselves. 

In the deaf community, many use identity-first language to show that deafness is an integral part of who they are and to show a sense of community and pride. Rather than “person with deafness,” they may simply want to be recognized as a “deaf person.” While the first option sounds as if someone is avoiding stating their disability, the second shows the importance of it to them. 

Deaf culture is rich and diverse, so this is a way to show pride in their deaf identity. The disability community has unique experiences, so giving them control over this language shows positive self-expression and can lead to higher confidence and self-image. 

The neurodivergent community encompasses those with neurological differences such as autism, ADD/ADHD, dyslexia, and more. It is more uncommon for individuals in this community to request identity-first language. In these situations, “ADD person” is typically not the preferred language, and they may not want their condition referenced at all when not necessary. 

In the mental health community, such as those with schizophrenia, identity-first language is sometimes used to help someone combine their condition into their sense of self. It can be a way for them to accept their condition, and they may find it empowering. However, it also is very rarely preferred or discussed openly outside of a medical setting. 

Using identity-first language can inherently acknowledge one’s sense of being by accepting that their condition is an important part of what makes them who they are. Still, it also outwardly mentions their diagnosis over their personhood. Proceed with caution when using this language regarding any community, and be mindful that others may not want their condition stated so boldly.

A condition like this should never be looked at as a weakness but rather something to be acknowledged and celebrated in who they are. Allow them to make the choice and be supportive in respecting whichever choice they make.

Alternatives to Both Options

It is worth mentioning that some may not prefer person-first or identity-first language at all. While some people may be fine either way, others may not want their condition to be explicitly stated. 

Be sensitive to this and consider where that person may be on their path. They may simply want to be referred to as a person with unique talents or characteristics rather than have their condition so openly addressed. This is especially true if the diagnosis is new or something they have not yet come to terms with. 

The wide range of language options restates the importance of openly asking and respecting one’s preferences. Talk to your loved ones. Ask them how they like to be addressed, and be mindful of their responses. It does not have to be a taboo subject or a question to be avoided; it will often seem thoughtful and considerate that you thought to ask. 

The Bottom Line

Language choice is a powerful means of self-expression and empowerment. It allows individuals with autism or other diversities to identify themselves on their own terms and make the decision about how they want to be described. 

The best thing you can do, as someone who knows or loves a person with autism, is allow them to share what makes them feel most seen and respected. You may find that some do not have a preference and are either okay or use these terms interchangeably. However, for those who do have a preference, it will likely mean a lot to them that you choose to learn and respect it. 

Considerate language contributes to creating an inclusive and supportive environment in educational, professional, and clinical settings. Using their preferred language shows that we accept them and acknowledge their diversity, and it fosters a sense of belonging and respect. 

Learn more about the autistic community and celebrate neurodiversity. Choose to take the steps to educate yourself and become a loving advocate. If you're interested in learning more about autism and the importance of language, check out our other blogs or sign up for our newsletter.


Autism Statistics and Facts | Autism Speaks

Preferences for Identity-First Versus Person-First Language in a US Sample of Autism Stakeholders | Amanda Taboas, Karla Doepke, Corinne Zimmerman, 2023

Morton Ann Gernsbacher | Department of Psychology

Perspective | The Use of Person‐First Language in Scholarly Writing May Accentuate Stigma

American Psychological Association | APA

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