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  • Writer's pictureDr. Kade Sharp, PhD, LICSW, CMHS, CST, RPT-S

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

Updated: Apr 16, 2023

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 language had shifted from “kid with autism” to “autistic kid.” Why was the label going first? How do autistic people feel when they see “autistic kid” written by someone who isn't autistic?

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 that this is more respectful. For example, “he’s an autistic guy” puts the focus on the descriptor (autistic), rather than the fact that he’s “just a guy who happens to be autistic.” In that first instance, “autistic” is either the guy’s mental health diagnosis, how he identifies, or someone is suggesting he has many autistic traits. It’s known as “identity-first language.” In the second phrase, the focus is on him as a guy - the label of the "disorder", identity or his traits are all an afterthought, which supposedly allows us to focus more on the guy himself.

But this is not the case. A majority of the Autistic community has said that they prefer not to detract from the fact that they are autistic. In fact, many feel that they can’t separate autism from their personhood, as it actively shapes how they perceive, exist in 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. They feel that it is, instead, how society is built and functions that can create challenges for them- the challenges aren't inherent because they're autistic. They did not suddenly "develop autism", they can't one day "be rid of autism" or "not be autistic anymore." With this working assumption, it makes sense that we would not say “person with autism” the same way we would say “person with red pants.” Those red pants can change, but being autistic cannot.

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" or "person on the autism spectrum." 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.

I would also strongly encourage you to check out articles on this topic written by other 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) is Riley Morgan's Resources page.

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