Is it “autistic” or “has autism”?
Is it "autistic" or "has autism"? How should people refer to people who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder?
There is no right and wrong way.
There is only personal preference.
And in polls, autistics have consistently indicated they prefer the first form.
This is identity first language.
The remaining 10% prefer to say they "have autism", and I fully support their right to do that (I can't even begin to understand how anyone could get emotionally overwrought at someone else's choice of self-identity).
This is person first language.
So, what's the beef?
It's a surprising one (although given neurotypicals' propensity for telling us what autism is really like we should expect it).
The "autistic" or "has autism" debate is a problem mostly for do-gooding neurotypical busybodies
For reasons best known to themselves, it seems the people who are most strident and insistent we use "person first" language to describe ourselves are neurotypicals.
I guess this is understandable to some extent because they still see a stigma attached to being autistic and they're taking pains to say "I see you as a person first, before I see your disability".
Alas, there are two problems we see with this.
The first is the overwhelming majority of autistics don't want to be referred to using person-first language.
Whether you like it or not and however you feel about it, we are defined to a greater or lesser extent by our autism. To deny this or — worse — to suggest it's wrong or "unhealthy" is to show your profound ignorance of what autism is and how it shapes us.
You can't take the autism out of us. It's not a disease or an appendage. To say "Oh, but you are so much more than your disability" to me is to invite a swift kick in the testicles (assuming you have them).
If you were (somehow) to rewire my brain and make me neurotypical you'd be making me into a different person. That which makes me the man I am is inevitably seen through the autistic view of the world. Change that, and you change who I am.
And I'm quite happy this way, thank you very much.
And the second problem often follows from the first, in that these neurotypicals get angry and upset and presume to tell us we "shouldn't" and even "mustn't" do it.
Once more, my Golden Rule: mind your own fucking business.
We need neither permission nor approval to refer to ourselves and self-identify exactly as we wish. And unless you want to be on the receiving end of some scathing comments, you'd do well to respect our wishes and not try to force your bullshit on us.
How to identify autistics in your speech
Statistically you are safe to use identity-first language when talking to or about a group of people. If you're in any doubt, qualify your comments.
If you're talking to an individual and it's relevant and appropriate to be talking about their being autistic, just ask. Don't assume.
I can't speak for anyone but myself, obviously, but I don't think there's a single autistic on the planet who's going to get pissed off if you ask simply "Do you prefer to be referred to as 'autistic' or as 'having autism'"?
If you must assume (because asking is impossible or inappropriate for some reason), then, again, statistically you're safer to use identity-first language.
Or maybe just use our name. That works, too, most of the time. If you're bringing our neurodiversity into the conversation, at least make sure it's relevant and not you just being a woke dick.
... if people who are not autistic object to your using identity-first language and say you "should" be using person-first language (as they often do), tell them autistics overwhelmingly prefer identity-first language, and if they don't like it, they can take it up with us.
We'll soon put them right, of that you can be sure.
Jon McCulloch, The Evil Bald Genius
Author, speaker, business owner, and autism advocate