Autism isn’t something I have; it’s something I am.
Put another way, I’m not “a person with Asperger’s/autism; I am an autistic/Aspergian person.
Those statements right there form the crux of “identity-first language”, a term typically used within the context of opposition to “person-first language”.
“Person-first” language (usually expressed as “a person with autism”, or something similar) implies that the person would be whole (or even improved) without their autism spectrum condition. It conveys the idea that their neurotype is an optional, separable part of them.
“Identity-first” language (“an autistic person” or similar term), on the other hand, recognizes that Asperger’s/autism is indeed a principal part of one’s very identity. It conveys the message that the person’s neurotype is part of the fundamental foundation of who they are.
Although I don’t have hard numbers (yet–this might make for a good social media poll), I’m in sync with a vast majority of the autism spectrum community in my own preference for identity-first terminology.
There is no imaginary line between myself and my neurotype. There isn’t a discernible point at which my Asperger’s/autism ends and the rest of me begins; my neurotype isn’t simply a “part” of me; it is me; we are one and the same.
There’s no way to remove the Asperger’s/autism without also removing the core of myself. I would not be the same person; I would be someone/something totally different.
Asperger’s/autism is not a tote bag that I simply carry around with me, lugging it from place to place, with the option of setting it down somewhere and leaving it or separating myself from it at my discretion. It’s intertwined in every brain cell, every neuronal projection, every synaptic gap. It’s not a single/simple “brain app” that my brain runs that could simply be uninstalled at will; it’s my whole operating system.
The problem that many of us (members of the Asperger’s/autism spectrum community) find with person-first language is that it often seems like a denial of our neurotype, a half-arsed subconscious attempt to sweep it under the rug. I find person-first terminology almost condescending, as though someone were patting me on the head and saying, “there, there. It’s OK. You’re still a whole person.”
Ummm, thanks? I mean, I’m glad I’m a whole person and everything (heh), but the sentiment is rather patronizing and more-than-borderline-ableist (the default settings and assumptions that a neurotypical, non-disabled world is somehow “the standard”), because it implies that our neurotype is somehow inferior to that of a non-autistic/non-Aspie. Because the sentence embodying the sentiment should actually read: “there, there. It’s OK. You’re still a whole person, despite your inferior neurological orientation.”
And I have this “funny” notion that the Asperger’s/autistic wiring is not inferior to neurotypical wiring. I personally believe that I’m not “someone with Asperger’s” any more than a gay person is “a person with gayness”. I don’t want my neurological orientation denied, downplayed, or minimized. I don’t feel the need to shove it in the face of everyone I meet or talk with, of course, but I don’t want to be sent the message (or to inadvertently encourage the idea) that my neurotype is something to be “lived through” “in spite of” or any other such sentiment.
It’s important that I mention that not everyone in the community feels this way. Some of us do indeed prefer person-first terminology. I think I can climb into their cerebral shoes (three cheers for cognitive empathy) 🙂 – my theory (and it’s only a theory) is that the Aspergian/autistic people who prefer to be referred to as “people with Asperger’s/autism” may simply be emphasizing that we are indeed people, and that everyone in the human race is simply their own unique individual. We’re all certainly human beings, with equal inherent rights and value. We all deserve to be heard and valued, and not just because we might be on the spectrum or not.
I certainly don’t take issue with that sentiment. In fact, I agree with its premise. And I certainly wouldn’t attempt to speak for them or lecture them about how they need to conform to the autism spectrum community majority by using identity-first language.
So….with differing opinions and preferences among the community, should one refer to an Asperger’s/autistic person as “a person with Asperger’s/autism” (person-first) or “an autistic” (identity-first)?
That all depends. Who are you referring to or talking with, and what do they prefer? After all, that’s what it really comes down to – respecting the individual person you’re interacting with. When in doubt, ask them directly. It’s OK to do so, and in fact, I recommend it. We’ll probably appreciate the consideration and the gesture.
When an individual opinion can’t be obtained for one reason or another, or I’m interacting with more than one member of the Asperger’s/autistic community, I opt for a fairly-universally-agreeable “Asperger’s/autistic person” or “people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum” (with an exception made for putting “with” (autism) or “have/has” (autism) in quotes or post hashtags in order to make for easier Google-searching). It appears to be a palatable happy medium that seems to satisfy people on both sides of the issue fairly adequately. It might not be a perfect solution, but I’m doing the best I can 🙂
(Image Credit: Derek Gores)