Autistic or Has Autism?

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In a world full of labels, is autistic an appropriate one?

Let’s open it up for discussion. I was once told that calling someone autistic is inappropriate because you are labeling that person based on a diagnosis. I immediately saw the logic and starting wondering if this was a common feeling in the community or not. Some people don’t like labels. Some people embrace labels and “take them back”. We could get into a deep philosophical debate about labels and whether they belong in society or not and who’s call it is to decide what is appropriate and what isn’t but whew! that sounds exhausting.label

In researching this topic, I started to see the other side of the equation and why people would prefer “autistic”. By saying that someone has autism, we are immediately implying that autism is a disease or something that is bad. Some people say it’s a disease that needs “fixing” while others view it as a part of their personality, not an abnormality. We’re exploring the idea of person-first terminology here and whether is belongs in the autism community or not.

Jim Sinclair listed the following reasons from his article, Why I dislike “person-first” language for not using the term, person with autism.

  • “Saying ‘person with autism’ suggests that the autism can be separated from the person”
  • “Saying ‘person with autism’ suggests that even if autism is part of the person, it isn’t a very important part”
  • “Saying ‘person with autism’ suggests that autism is something bad–so bad that is isn’t even consistent with being a person”
    He elaborates on these three points with examples and I encourage you to read the entire article to get a full understanding of where he’s coming from.

To be perfectly honest, I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I started writing this. I knew it would not be a clear answer. I knew I was touching on a subject that would be met with uncertainties and differing opinions but this goes so much deeper than what is considered “politically correct”. We can compare this to something like using the “n” word toward black people but it’s not comparable once we really look at what we’re saying.

The bottom line comes down to whether the person believes that autism is a diagnosis or if it’s a defining factor of who they are. So when someone says a person with autism, they are implying that the person they are referring to has an aspect about them that is undesirable because you have separated autism from what makes that person. The only reason to separate that aspect is if it is a perceived negative aspect. We don’t separate hair color or gender from a describing factor of a person because we don’t perceive those aspects of the person as negative. Conversely, when someone says that someone is autistic, we are recognizing that this is a part of who they are and one that should be acknowledged with pride.

While many people will argue that autism is negative and that’s why we are trying to find a cure, there are many forms of autism that are not debilitating and bring out truly amazing talents and personalities in people.

So does a person have autism or are they autistic? Or is it not cut and dry and does it depend on the severity of the autism? One could argue that we don’t need labels but it would be naive to ignore the fact that there are considerations that must be taken when a person may be sensitive to sounds or textures or other forms of stimulation. Without being able to identify that person somehow, the sensitivity to their needs would be missed.

What do you think? Which do you prefer?

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