At Blossom Children’s Center, we use identity-first language.
Because this is such an important topic, and because there is an ongoing discussion about person-first vs. identity-first language in the autism community, we thought it particularly important to explain why we prefer identity-first language.
Let’s begin by defining both of these terms.
Person-first language (sometimes abbreviated as PFL) is a linguistic practice that prioritizes the individual rather than their condition or disability. In the context of the autism community, person-first language refers to using phrasing that emphasizes the person over their autism diagnosis. For example, in person-first language instead of saying “an autistic person,” one might say “a person with autism” to avoid defining the person solely by their diagnosis.
For those that prefer this practice, this approach recognizes that a person with autism is more than their condition and is entitled to be seen as an individual with unique abilities, strengths, and challenges.
In a groundbreaking article for Virginia Commonwealth University, Mary Tobin explains:
“[Person-first language] is about more than just language; it goes deeper into our attitudes toward others and how those attitudes translate into action. The label or identification that one’s condition or disability receives from a doctor is just that: a label. It is a way of broadly characterizing a group of symptoms under a recognizable and universal description so that treatment and services can be provided. It doesn’t speak to a person’s value or abilities.
While Dr. Tobin’s perspective is both valid and widely accepted, it is not seen as universal.
An alternative linguistic model is known as identity-first language. Identity-first language (sometimes abbreviated as IFL) prioritizes the individual’s identity as an autistic person and sees autism as an inherent part of who they are. For example, instead of saying “a person with autism,” one might say “an autistic person” to acknowledge that autism is a central aspect of their identity.
IFL is preferred by many individuals on the autism spectrum and their advocates because it affirms their experience and challenges the idea that autism is a mere “condition” or “disorder” that needs to be separated from the person.
In an equally groundbreaking article, published by Autism Network International, Jim Sinclair writes:
“Saying “person with autism” suggests that the autism can be separated from the person. But this is not the case. I can be separated from things that are not part of me, and I am still the same person. I am usually a person with a purple shirt, but I could also be a person with a blue shirt one day, and a person with a yellow shirt the next day, and I would still be the same person, because my clothing is not part of me. But autism is part of me. Autism is hard-wired into the ways my brain works. I am autistic because I cannot be separated from how my brain works.”
As Autistic Self-Advocacy Network’s Lydia Brown so adroitly puts it, “These issues of semantics are hot-button issues, and rightfully so.”
Why We Prefer Identity-first Language
Our extensive work with the autistic community has shown us rather conclusively that identity-first language is what is largely preferred by the autistic community. Adults with autism tend to strongly echo Sinclair’s sentiment that “Identity-first language says Autism is a valuable part of my identity, something that should be embraced.”
In another powerful article, Jim Sinclair explains poignantly that “Autism is not something a person has, it is not some shell a person is trapped inside. Autism is a way of being. There is no neurotypical child under the autism. It is pervasive; it colors every experience, every sensation,
perception, thought, emotion, and encounter, every aspect of existence. It is not possible to separate the autism from the person–and if it were possible, the person you’d have left would not be the same person you started with.”
Elesia Ashkenazy, National Advisory Council of the Autism NOW Center writes, in a powerful reflection, that:
“Being a deaf person, as well as a member of the Deaf community, I prefer to be referred to as Deaf. This is preferable to me rather than the terms “hearing impaired” or “person who has deafness.” I don’t have deafness, I am deaf. For me, it is the same with autism. I don’t have autism, I am autistic. Since I do not view my deafness and autism as negatives, I use language that puts me in the direct light of both autism and deafness.”
At Blossom Children’s Center, our vision is for every child and family in the special needs community to be empowered on their journey in leading a fulfilled life that is not defined by special needs. And to us, that demands identity-first language.
Why Identity-first Language Matters
The autistic children we work with at Blossom Children’s Center will grow up to be adults with autism. That state of being–that part of a person’s identity–is an inextricable part of who the child is. And we strongly feel that identity first language encourages people to celebrate everyone, not in spite of their autism, but because of the person it helps make them. Identity first language helps foster a positive self-concept in the child.
As a facility that specializes in early intervention for children with autism spectrum disorder and other special needs, we champion self-concept and self-esteem. We respect individuality and preference, and we certainly honor the feelings of those who prefer person-first language. But as autism is an aspect of self for people with autism, we prefer identity first language.
Learn more about our Applied Behavior Analysis Therapy Services