People are always confused about how to define themselves, even more so when it comes to others. What is even more confusing and trickier is how people with autism will define themselves. The basic question starts with – Should we say that someone is autistic? Or that they have autism? It is a basic language question. Northeastern University recently published two stories, which raised an engaging debate. Lydia Brown, an activist, was described as ‘autistic’ in the first story, while in the second one, description of an algorithm was given, one which can predict behaviour in autistic children.
Both cases used the identity-first language, instead of the person-first language. However, this choice of words was objectionable to families and people associated with people with autism. “Generally, it’s the people themselves who prefer to be called ‘autistic people’ and caregivers and professionals who prefer ‘people with autism,’” said Laura Dudley. She is an Assistant Clinical Professor at the University. Dudley also has more than two decades of experience in dealing with children affected by autism and other similar disabilities.
Everyone who favours the person-first language – means that the person, in spite of having a disorder, is not defined by his disorders. Whereas, people who prefer the identity-first language, the choice here is about empowerment i.e. that you are not ashamed of being categorised as autistic. “Both sides of the argument make sense to me,” Dudley said. However, she also understands how one wouldn’t be able to digest the other term, once they have accepted one of them.
“Language is a really powerful tool in society,” said Lydia Brown. “It shapes how we think about and understands our world and the people in it.”
When in doubt, Brown proposes three rules of thumb for people who don’t know which language to use. “If you don’t know the preference of the person and don’t have a chance to ask them, go with the majority opinion of the community, because that’s a safe bet,” Brown said. “If you do have a chance to ask, ask and use that. And if you’re referring to a group of people who have different preferences, use the language of the majority of the group.”