Should We Say 'With Autism' or 'Autistic'? Here's Why It Matters

One mom wrestles to understand which term better serves people on the spectrum, including her son.

Autism spelled out in colorful blocks
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People often wonder if they should say "person with autism" or "autistic person" when talking about kids or adults on the spectrum.

I get this question often. I have had readers ask me to change the way I use the terms in my writing, and I also hear a lot of confusion from my friends, family, and the professionals who work with my son, a non-speaking 7-year-old on the spectrum.

With autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as with all things, how we talk about it reflects how we think about it, our priorities in relation to it, and what we believe to be the truth of it. For these reasons, many advocates are challenging the use of "person-first" language and reclaiming the term autistic.

At face value, person-first language, which is what many organizations and publications use when writing about ASD, makes sense. It puts the person before the disease. We don't say things like "my diabetic brother" or "my cancerous mother." Those are cringe-worthy constructions, indeed, and many people argue that saying "my autistic son" is in the same league.

The problem here, however, is both simple and complex. By using person-first language and saying "my son with autism" in conversation, I'm treating his autism like a disease like cancer or diabetes. Wrapped up in that is the notion that a disease needs a cure, that my child needs "fixing."

While my son needs help to overcome his communication and sensory challenges, he doesn't need fixing. Autism is his neurology. It's how his brain is wired and an integral part of how he experiences the world. You can't cure neurology, and I think the implications of trying to are unsettling.

It's for these reasons that many people on the spectrum refer to themselves as autistic. There's a wonderful, detailed explanation of this on the Autism Self-Advocacy Network's website, but some key points of their stance on language are worth quoting here:

"When we say 'person with autism,' we say that it is unfortunate and an accident that a person is autistic…In fact, we are saying that autism is detrimental to value and worth as a person, which is why we separate the condition with the word 'with' or 'has.' Ultimately, what we are saying when we say 'person with autism' is that the person would be better off if not autistic."

"Yet, when we say 'autistic person,' we recognize, affirm, and validate an individual's identity as an autistic person…Ultimately, we are accepting that the individual is different from non-autistic people—and that that's not a tragedy, and we are showing that we are not afraid or ashamed to recognize that difference."

So, what do I do when faced with this debate? For now, I say "Liam" when talking to my son and about him. I tend to say "my autistic son" when telling people about him in more detail in my non-blogging life.

In time, I hope to ask my son what he prefers and I'll use that. For now, no matter which terms I use, I'll keep trying to spread a message of hope, acceptance, and inclusion whenever and however I speak about autism.

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