I haven’t posted anything about Autism Awareness Month so far (largely because the awareness thing isn’t going to make autistic peoples’ lives better without acceptance and understanding) but this topic has come up a fair bit lately in various articles.
First a definition: Person first language means using language that emphasizes that a person with a disability is a person, afflicted with a thing. Some people prefer this way of talking about autism because they don’t like the idea of emphasizing a label, so they say “person with autism.”
Identity first language is language that embraces the label as a part of a person’s identity. Some people prefer this way of talking about autism because it emphasizes that autism is a part of who they are and that they accept themselves as they are, so they say “autistic” or “aspie.”
If you start looking at the conversations going on on the internet, you’ll see a pattern in who prefers person first and who prefers identity first language. The parents of autistic children prefer person first language, because it allows them to say things like “I love you, but I hate your autism,” and lets them love their child without accepting their child for what they are.
Autistic people themselves for the most part prefer identity first language. They want to be able to take pride in who they are. And they want to encourage the world to understand them and accept them.
And another thing I’d like to touch on is parents who know their child has been diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder, but don’t tell their child, because they don’t want their child to be labelled. If you take away words, you make it impossible to talk about something. Imagine you’re trying to tell someone you need something to drink, but you have no word for “water” or “thirsty”.
I’ve never understood this fear of “labels” that everyone talks about. I’m not a person who’s married. I’m not a person who writes novels, or a person who flies aeroplanes. I’m a wife, a writer, a pilot. The only time a label becomes frightening is when it’s considered innately negative and shameful. No one fusses over a war vet being referred to as an amputee, and that’s because people don’t think being an amputee is shameful or that an amputee needs to be separated from their disability.
And Autistic people should not have to separate themselves from their diagnosis in order to be worthy of love, respect and understanding.