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  • Writer's pictureKade Sharp, LICSW, CMHS

Why “Autistic kid” and Not “Kid with autism”?

Updated: Jul 25, 2020

Why “Autistic kid” and Not “Kid with autism”?

You are not alone in having this question, honestly. I had to do a lot of research when I saw that the trend had shifted from “kid with autism” to “Autistic kid.” Why was the label going first? Why was Autistic capitalized even though the phrase autism spectrum is generally not capitalized in literature? How do Autistic people feel when they see “Autistic kid” written by someone without autism? I want to briefly share what I’ve learned and link you to a resource page to hear from Autistic folks themselves, as they are truly the experts here!

What happened to person-first language?

Saying “she’s a kid with autism” is considered “person-first language.” All throughout my undergraduate degree and graduate school, I was taught to use “person-first language” because it centers the conversation on the human in front of you, not whatever label there might be that goes along with them. It was also taught to me that this is more respectful. For example, “he’s a bipolar guy” puts the focus on the descriptor, rather than the fact that he’s just “a guy who happens to have bipolar.” In that first instance, “bipolar” is either the guy’s mental health diagnosis or someone is suggesting he has many symptoms of bipolar disorder. It’s known as “identity-first language.” In the second phrase, the focus is on him as a guy - the disorder or symptomatology is an afterthought, allowing us to focus more on the guy himself.

When we look at autism, though, a majority of the Autistic community has said that they prefer not to detract from the fact that they are on the autism spectrum. In fact, many feel that they can’t separate autism from their personhood, as it actively shapes how they perceive and experience the world each day. They also feel that autism is not necessarily a disorder, but instead just the way their brain is wired- that it is, instead, how society is built and functions that creates challenges for them. With this working assumption of life and autism, it makes sense that we would not say “person with autism” the same way we would say “person with cancer.” (For more on this, please view the bottom of this Google Document by Dr Joel Schwartz.)

So does everyone say “Autistic person” now?

No, of course not. Just like any language shift, it grows in popularity and general usage slowly. You’ll still see lots of people saying “kid with autism” (heck, that’s still in my vocab, even as I’m trying to switch over!) And some people still prefer to be a “person with autism”. The bad news is: you’re not going to know until you ask or hear how they want to be referenced. So being able to actively listen to hear how someone identifies or politely asking them upfront what language you should use is a great first step.

Which one should I use if I don’t know the person’s preference or if I’m speaking generally?

I personally will be following the lead from Autistic scholars and the community - so I will be switching my language to match identity-first when speaking generally. When getting to know someone, I try to listen to hear how they talk about their own experiences and use the language they like to use for themselves. If someone lets me know they want me to use different language with them, I will absolutely change. You’re free to navigate this in any way you deem appropriate.

I would also strongly encourage you to check out articles on this topic written by Autistic authors themselves so you can see different viewpoints and dive deeper into the intricacies of language and how it affects folks. There is no “one size fits all” approach and there is always more to learn. A central location for great blogs, books, videos, sites and Facebook pages (by Autistic content creators) that is updated often is the aforementioned Google Document by Dr Joel Schwartz.

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