Is It “Autistic Person” or “Person with Autism”?

Just when I thought we’ve pushed the bounds of “political correctness” too far with the whole “Is it a Christmas Tree or a Holiday Tree?” debate, here we go with having to stick our anal retentive noses into the Autism community.

The idea is that we should “put the person first” before the disorder. And conversely, if you say “Autistic Person” then you are putting the disorder first and somehow implying that it has more importance.

I put a little more thought into this and have wondered at the following statements:

  • Would I refer to someone as being a brunette, a brunette person or a person of brunette haired persuasion?
  • Would I mention that someone is a Canadian person or a person born of the nation of Canada?
  • Should I refer to Mr Smith as Smith whom is a Mister?
  • Should job titles start coming after the name? CEO Steve Jobs or Steve Jobs, CEO?
  • Do we stop calling someone a cancer survivor a cancer survivor and instead say “a person whom has survived cancer”?

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for being politically correct so long as it’s serving a proper purpose. These include proper formalities, curbing racism and so on.

However, for the sake of knit picking your own interpretation of what you think someone else may or may not be inadvertently implying on some other level of perception… is this really what we need to spend our time and energy on?

Again, don’t get me wrong, I am not dismissing the idea of putting the person first, never have, never will.. but only in a very real, active, sense.

Finally, let me put it this way, in conclusion:

In speech, Autistic is an adjective just like any other and therefore as important or unimportant as any other… including hairy, blonde, brunette, shaven, unshaven, tall, short, fat, skinny, striped or bouncy (oops, sorry, was just watching Winnie the Pooh).

If it offends you, then YOU are the ones giving it more importance than the person by being offended by it in the first place. YOU are the one who thinks it’s more important when you hear it and YOU are the one who gives it more importance by getting all upset about it.

The person that says “Autistic Person” had never considered ever putting anything first before their child until you came along and pointed it out.

About Stuart Duncan

My name is Stuart Duncan, creator of My oldest son (Cameron) has Autism while my younger son (Tyler) does not. I am a work from home web developer with a background in radio. I do my very best to stay educated and do what ever is necessary to ensure my children have the tools they need to thrive. I share my stories and experiences in an effort to further grow and strengthen the online Autism community and to promote Autism Understanding and Acceptance.

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20 Responses to Is It “Autistic Person” or “Person with Autism”?

  1. Amanda Broadfoot August 19, 2010 at 11:38 am #

    I’m with you! With all that we have to work for, lobby for, fight for as parents of autistic kids, this really does not enter my top 100 issues.

    I don’t even care if people refer to my son as “an autistic,” which really rubs some people the wrong way. But the way I look at it, it’s also common practice to say “a genius.” No one’s griping about that.

  2. Big Daddy August 19, 2010 at 12:27 pm #

    I totally agree. I don’t care how someone refers to his disorder as long as they treat my son with the dignity and respect he deserves.

  3. Melissa G. August 19, 2010 at 4:39 pm #

    I agree as well. When I first started researching autism, I was annoyed at the people who had such a strong insistence on how the “autistic person with autism” should be referred to. It doesn’t bother me if anyone calls my children autistic. It’s just a name and if I was that worried about labels I might not have had them diagnosed in the first place. I do wonder if the PC parents talk about their “children with autism” in their presence, as though they weren’t even there. To me, that’s more dehumanizing than the usage of the word “autistic.”

  4. capriwim August 19, 2010 at 4:41 pm #

    I find a lot of autistic people go to the other extreme of disliking ‘person with autism’ or ‘person with Aspergers’, because it suggests the autism is an accessory they wear rather than an intrinsic sense of their being.

    I have Aspergers, and I am not bothered either way. I tend to say ‘I have Aspergers’ or ‘I am on the autistic spectrum’ because there is not an official adjective for having Aspergers. For me the most important thing is relevance and context. I generally don’t go round introducing myself as a person with Aspergers – I introduce myself by my name, as anyone else would, because I am a person, same as everyone else! I might mention the Aspergers later, if I get to know someone well, or if it’s relevant.

    • outoutout August 19, 2010 at 8:44 pm #

      I thought that the Aspergers community has more-or-less adopted “Aspie” as an unofficial adjective. That’s the one I use, anyway. 🙂
      (of course, some militantly insist on “Aspergian”…but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion!)

      • capriwim August 21, 2010 at 6:45 am #

        Yes, a lot do, but others dislike it because it’s ‘cutesy’ or other reasons. I would prefer there to be an official term, so that I could use it without confusing people who are not part of the Aspergers community. For communication purposes, really, and to be taken seriously.

  5. outoutout August 19, 2010 at 9:02 pm #

    Totally agree with you, Stuart.

    I’m all for letting people using whichever they feel is right, and there are equally valid reasons for using either “autistic” or “person with autism”. The only wrong way is to insist that OTHERS use one form or the other.

    And you’re right, there are far more important things to be concerned with than nomenclature! 🙂

    A Person With Femaleness, Gayness, Brunetteness, and Aspie-Ness. 😉

  6. Stuart Duncan August 20, 2010 at 4:00 pm #

    Thanks for the support on this everyone. My first thought was to not write this so as to not offend anyone.
    Then I got to thinking about how easily offended these people must be in the first place that this is even an issue.

    Anyway, I’m glad to hear that others (especially PERSONS with Autism/Aspergers) agree with me.

    Now, let’s get back to focusing on more important stuff, shall we?

  7. Candor Wit September 2, 2010 at 9:01 am #

    I agree and disagree with you. I don’t think a lot of time should be spent on the every day person using language that “puts the child first”. However, I am an academic and work to train the very people who will work directly with your children; Many of them, in my opinion, are but children themselves. These future teachers and psychologists don’t have children, let alone any real hands on experience with children with disabilities. While research and funding need to stay focused on the real issues such as cause, prevention, intervention and treatment, I think it is very important, and my duty, to make sure our future practitioners put the child first.
    Nothing is worse than sitting in a review meeting and instead the educators using the child’s name, like Joey and Sue, I hear, “the downs girl acted up again” or “the autistic hit the teacher and had to go to the take down room”. This is where the whole “put the child first” issue evolved. Saying the child is autistic is not the issue, a person referring to your son as “the autistic” repeatedly in conversation in lieu of ever using his name, is completely unacceptable. They are people, not just conditions. I think you’d want me to call your son Connor in conversations instead of the autistic boy in my class.
    Caregivers and professionals are extremely guilty of making the label the person. Of course, if you have 20 children with autism in a classroom, it becomes less of an issue as other identifiers have to be used. But you will find in schools where the average student is of typical development, many untrained people will refer to the child according to their diagnosis, and that’s just sad. My child may have Down’s syndrome or Cerebral Palsy, but his name is Joe, not the kid with downs. Everyone has a name and deserves respect.
    So if we are in practice of not using the adjectives autistic or downs, but forced to say child with autism, you will find it becomes too wordy, and you start just using the child’s actual name. It’s easy to say, “The autistic kid isn’t integrating well”. It’s annoying to say, “The child with autism isn’t integrating well”. You should say, “Joe isn’t integrating well”, since, if you know Joe, you already know he has autism. Eureka!

    • Julia December 28, 2013 at 1:27 am #

      Well written!!!

  8. Anders Pemer August 22, 2011 at 9:06 pm #

    Spot on!

  9. Clay Boatright August 22, 2011 at 10:09 pm #

    Most of the people I know who have autism don’t spend any time worrying about this issue. Out of curiosity, if it’s OK for me to refer to my children as my “autisic twins”, then twenty years ago…when my wife was undergoing chemotherapy…would have it been OK for me to refer to her as my “cancerous wife”?

  10. stefanie August 23, 2011 at 5:53 pm #

    this stuff make me sn my friends nuts i have autism and me an my friends dont sit around thinking about are lable .i wish they would not refer to us as a puzzle we are people an i guss i would say if i tell someone i have autism i say my name then my disbilty

  11. Tina September 2, 2011 at 3:51 pm #

    Stuart wow finally yes yes agreed they are not autistic they are our loved ones diagnosed with autism. I correct so many people on this as they are people first and a diagnosis secondary . Being autistic in my mind is saying that is who they are and it is not. Autism does not define them. They are people with the diagnosis not a diagnosis and then the person. So do we say hey theres Heart Problem Joe NO we say hey theres Joe who has heart problems. Sorry I do not like the saying autistic I even correct doctors on it
    Mom of twins and 1 with autism

  12. Stephanie Barmann September 2, 2011 at 5:01 pm #

    I agree with you 100%. My daughter has autism and I have refered to her as having autism, being autisitic etc

  13. Bobby September 14, 2011 at 9:00 pm #

    Tina, there is nothing wrong with these people. Of course everyone is a person first, but there is no blank white slate underneath everyone that is some ‘perfectness’. A person is autistic to the bone, just as a black person is. I’m an italian, not a person with italian heritage. A down syndrome person does not HAVE down syndrome, it’s who they are. It is in their DNA. People like you who correct others on this obviously have a problem with this ‘ disorder’ to be so up tight about it.

  14. BerlingoBoy May 22, 2015 at 9:38 am #

    Autism is one of those inconveniences / disorders / impairments / disabilities that shape a person’s life from cradle to grave. Delete the ones you don’t like and many people will want to delete all four. So be it, but how do we describe the differences that convey our experiences and needs to those who are gatekeepers and decision makers for the services and changes that may help us. It is different to having an impairment that can be readily recognised. More fundamentally, if a person believes that autism positively defines who they are then it follows that “autistic person” is the more appropriate description but from a parent who may be expected to provide 24/7 care it is more likely to be “person with autism”. A parent will put the person first, but also understands that the ongoing care required will also define their life in the years to come. At the going down of the sun it is really asking the question “do you see what I see?” – the two ways of describing the same thing must be easily interchangeable without rancour,

  15. Sia May 26, 2015 at 8:33 am #

    Just a thought but I’ve never come across anyone offended by “People on the spectrum” or even “People on the autistic spectrum.”

    By all means, talk about the person but sometimes there are times when you have to talk about the community as a whole.

    Let’s say I was talking about the #actuallyautistic people on tumblr, for example. It’s impractical to name every single person (That’s about 100,000 of them! Not going to sit there and name everybody!)

    And sometimes there are certain times when you want to talk about communites as a whole. If I was talking about sexism for example, I wouldn’t go around naming every single female. It’s silly and it takes too long in that scenario.

    Sometimes, I talk about me as ‘Sia’. Sometimes, it’s necessary to refer to certain culture stuff. I then talk about myself as “autistic”, for the same reason I don’t go around calling myself a “person with femaleness.”


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