Person-First Language Is Great Until It’s Not. Here’s Why Many People on the Spectrum Don’t Use It

Person-first language (e.g. “person with autism” instead of “autistic person”) has always had good intentions, and, in its prime, it was a revolution of sorts. It was a way of acknowledging that our linguistic choices play a role in the way we think and view the world, and it theorized that, by putting the person before their disability or condition, we could change the way people view those who are different from them.

However, the person-first language revolution has since taken a turn for the worse. Why? Well according to autistic advocate Lydia X. Z. Brown, the idea has been taken over by people who are non-disabled, non-autistic, and in no way in need of this particular linguistic change. These so-called “allistic” people are now insisting on the use of person-first language, completely disregarding the feelings of those people the language is being used to describe.

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Brown herself recently referred to herself as an “autistic person” when speaking at an event, and someone interrupted her to correct her language and tell her she needed to “separate herself from the condition.”

Not only was the timing impolite, but Brown also felt that the sentiment was not in keeping with the spirit of the original person-first movement. The comment certainly didn’t seem to reflect any care about her as a person.

“Person-first language actually had revolutionary origins. Unfortunately, that has become lost in most modern discourse,” says Brown, “because the people who most loudly advocate for the use of person-first language are not disabled at all.”

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Person-first language is a fantastic idea, and any person with a disability or condition should be able to decide whether they’d like people to use person-first language or whether they’re okay with identity-first language. However, no one, regardless of their abilities or conditions, should be forced into a world of person-first language just because it’s the new norm.

“We recognize that disability and personhood are not mutually exclusive. They are not oxymoronic,” says Brown. “We’ll often say that if you have to put the word ‘person’ first to remind yourself that we’re people, you really have a problem, not us. Because if you have to go through linguistic gymnastics to remind yourself that we’re people, you already didn’t believe we were people.”

Brown says social workers, teachers, and therapists are instructed to use only person-first language, further complicating the issue.

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For many people on the autism spectrum, the demand for person-first language can actually make their lives more difficult. There are times when person-first language just sounds awkward or strange in certain contexts, which ends up calling attention to the person’s diagnosis more than necessary.

The demand for person-first language can also make others uncomfortable because they don’t know how they should talk about someone with autism or a disability. Some people are hesitant to approach the topic or have a conversation with such a person at all for fear of offending them. This can be far more alienating than traditional identity-first language might have been.

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Brown says many disability communities, including the deaf, autistic, and blind, are now tending to opt for identity-first language rather than person-first language. There are still other disability groups that prefer person-first language, but Brown says its important to acknowledge that this isn’t true across the board. Person-first language should not be forced on an individual just because of their disability or condition.

People with autism and disabilities deserve the same respect, dignity, and autonomy as those without any such condition. But person-first language has taken a turn that could actually force autistic and disabled people into a box, albeit a politically correct box.

Language, as it turns out, is only part of what it means to treat others with dignity and respect. Let’s all do our part to treat other people as people, regardless of the language choices they prefer or anything else about them. We don’t all have to agree about identity- versus person-first language to be able to agree that every person should be treated as a person.

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