There is some debate about using the term ‘autistic child’ vs. ‘child with autism’, the latter being an example of what is typically referred to as ‘person-first language’. As you may have noticed, I typically use ‘autistic’. There are plenty of strong opinions about either form, not surprisingly. I have been asked many times about this, and it’s a fair question.
Person-first language means that you refer to the person first and then their ‘condition’ – such as ‘child with autism’ or ‘person with heart disease’ – rather than using their ‘condition’ as an adjective like ‘brain-injured man’ or ‘breast cancer patient’. In many medical, social services, and educational contexts this is established as an institutional policy. In a number of those settings, it’s considered a grievous offense to not use it in every instance, without exception.
However, I come at this from a different direction. Primarily, I use ‘autistic’ because it is usually the preference of those bloggers who are autistic. Many of them use the terms ‘autistic’ or ‘autistics’ as nouns, too. This to me in itself is enough reason to use the term in this way.
In the case of ‘autistic’, it is primarily used as an adjective. We use adjectives to describe each other all the time in our society, and most of the time there’s no assumption that a particular adjective completely defines someone. Just because I’m a white person or a male person doesn’t mean that’s all I am. Sure those are fundamental to who I am, and there are a variety of things that are very likely true about me as a result (e.g., society is sadly still very tilted in favor of both whiteness and maleness). So those define something essential about me, but I am more than those words.
The reality is that autism does define something essential about who our J-Man is and who we are as a family. It is the fundamental lens through which he takes in the world and processes everything. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. I think to relegate autism simply to the level of a ‘condition’ is to not fully appreciate autism’s place in the diversity of what it means to be human. But perhaps that is a reflection for another day.
Both ‘autistic’ and ‘has autism’ may arise from a different set of perspectives, but I think most everyone means well regardless of which they use. The expressed preference of autistic persons I have met in person or online has been the primary reason I use ‘autistic’ as I do. In cases where you can ask someone what they prefer, their preference trumps any other rule in my opinion.
My perspective is merely one among a diversity of opinions. Over time many people have asked me about this or raised this issue with me. Given its importance, I wanted to take a moment and give an account of why I make the choice of words I do.