Why person first language drives me mad | Unapologetically Autistic

Why person first language drives me mad

autism and person first language

Person-first language drives me nuts, way beyond reason. I don't get offended or angry about it, but I do find it frustrating.

First, what do I mean by person first language?


In this context — autism — it means putting the "person" before the "condition".

In other words it's the difference between saying autistic person or just autistic, and person with autism. At other times you'll see us described as having autism. Stuff like that.

You'd think it was a pretty innocuous bit of semantics, right? 

And you'd be wrong. 

It stirs up as much fire and brimstone as any other controversy in the community.

I've a couple of things to say about it.

The first is it's a matter of personal choice.

No one gets to tell you how to refer to yourself but you.

If you want to call yourself autistic or person with autism it's no one's business but your own.

It''s also your right to ask others to refer to you how you prefer to be addressed, too. I don't see how this is any different from wanting to be referred to by the gender you identify as.

Mind your own business

But by the same token, you don't get to tell others how they they should refer to themselves or judge how they ask you to refer to them.

You can't have it both ways.

My own preference is to refer to myself as autistic and for others to do the same. If you describe me as having autism or being a person with autism, you can be sure I'll correct you. If you persist, then you can be sure I'll really correct you.

See, it's the way I'm wired up.

It's part of me, not an appendage or a disease, and it's intrinsic to my identity. 

I've been told that's "unhealthy" and a sign of "low self esteem", but not only is that all bullshit, but it's none of anyone else's business.

To me, my autism is a fundamental part of me, not something I have; it's part of what I am. True, it's not all I am, but it's not separate from me, either. It can't be cured or be considered separate from me in any meaningful way. 


What do I find so aggravating about person first language?

It's this: while I'm sure they're out there, I have yet to come across another autistic who prefers to be called a person with autism.

Maybe my correspondents are a self-selecting audience, but as far as I can see, it's neurotypicals who are insisting we go around saying we have autism and the like, rather than identifying as autistic.

And that really does get me grinding my teeth.

I find it even more aggravating because it seems a common tendency with NTs to want to patronise and mollycoddle us autistics, telling us what's best for us, how we should think, and feel, and what we should want.

Sorry... but that's not how this works.

That's not how any of this works.

If you want to know how an autistic person wants to be addressed (or anything else about us, including how we feel and what kind of help and assistance we want and need)...

... ask.


Jon McCulloch, The Evil Bald Genius

Author, speaker, business owner, and autism advocate

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I'm Jon. Husband, father, business owner, author, speaker, and outspoken advocate for autism awareness. I struggled my whole life knowing I was different, but not knowing how or why. I was finally diagnosed in 2019, but had informally self-identified as autistic for a couple of years before that. I live on a remote farm in Ireland with my wife and an assortment of cats and dogs.