The problems with person first language have been talked about extensively in the autistic community. Many autistic people have expressed a strong, explicit preference for identity first language. And yet, we’re still treated to comments like this one (paraphrased from a comment on another blog):
I work with children with autism and I always say child with autism because they’re children first and autism doesn’t define them. Also, I say typically developing child instead of normal, because normal has negative connotations. Words are important–they reflect how you think.
My first reaction to reading that type of comment is always, “aren’t the typically developing children also children first?”
Or do we just not need to be reminded that they’re children?
If you don’t use normal because it has negative connotations, does the same logic apply to the use of autistic? Or does autistic exist in some special category of word that’s not bad but also unspeakable?
I fail to see why it’s okay to use the identity first descriptor “typically developing child” but not the identity first “autistic child.” Why do we constantly need to be reminded that the autistic kids are people? Is it so easy to forget? I would hope that no matter what label I use to refer to myself it be would obvious that I’m a person.
Anyone who needs to constantly remind themselves that disabled people are people should probably spend more time examining their own beliefs and less time telling other people how to speak about themselves or their children.
Using person first language to refer to autistic children and identity first language to refer to typically developing children isn’t inclusive. It’s othering and unnecessary.
Person first language arose because disabled people were being referred to by demeaning and pejorative terms that had an identity first construction. In some communities, where a preferred identity first term hasn’t arisen, person first is still the preferred construction.
Autistic people, however, have repeatedly expressed a preference for identity first language. For some reason, nonautistic people who think they know better continue to ignore our (loudly and oft-stated) preference. To those people I say, “If you truly believe we’re people, first or otherwise, then listen to what we’re saying and respect our preference.”
Autistic is not a dirty word. When you act like it is, you aren’t helping autistic people. You’re contributing the very stigma that you pretend to abhor.
One of my wonderful readers brought this post to the attention of the folks at the Yeah Write Writer’s Challenge it was made an Editor’s Pick. I even got some swag.