Nick Walker, PhD
A number of autistic authors have written critiques of person-first language in the past, beginning with Jim Sinclair’s “Why I Dislike Person First Language” in 1999. While these previous critiques have articulated excellent points with which I’m largely in agreement, I haven’t been entirely satisfied with them; I’ve yet to encounter one that offers sufficient critical analysis of the purposes and rationales behind person-first language. So I wrote my own, and here it is.
The definitive, citable version of this essay can be found in my book Neuroqueer Heresies.
When referencing my work, please remember that my pronouns are she/her.
If you have even the slightest familiarity with the societal discourse on autism—whether you’ve learned about autism in an academic or professional setting, or just been exposed to discussions about it in the mass media—you’ve almost certainly encountered person-first language. That’s where instead of simply referring to autistic people as autistic people, folks use grotesque and needlessly cumbersome phrases like people with autism, children who have autism, individuals experiencing autism, or adults living with autism.
Person-first language is rooted in autistiphobia and anti-autistic bigotry, and its use is widely recognized by most of the autistic community as being a reliable indicator of autistiphobic attitudes. The reason that person-first language is so prevalent in our society’s discourses on autism is that those discourses have always been dominated by the voices and viewpoints of autistiphobic bigots. From the 1930s through the present day, the vast majority of the non-autistic people who’ve written about autism or done any sort of autism-related work have held deeply ingrained autistiphobic attitudes. The language used in their work reflects those attitudes.
The use of person-first language when talking about autistic people is so prevalent and so widely accepted that most non-autistic folks don’t think twice about it and don’t even recognize it as the language of bigotry and stigma. The autistiphobic bigotry inherent in person-first language doesn’t become obvious until you listen to how it sounds when you use that same sort of language to talk about members of other historically oppressed and marginalized groups.
Here, give it a try: People with homosexuality? Children who have Jewishness? Adults experiencing femaleness? Ooh, how about individuals living with Blackness? Are you comfortable with those phrases? If you read an article in which the author consistently referred to gay people as people with homosexuality, adults who have homosexuality, and individuals living with homosexuality, what would be your impression of that author’s attitude toward being gay?
• • •
There are only two kinds of people who use person-first language when talking about autistics:
Autistiphobic bigots. In other words, people who believe that there’s something wrong with being autistic—that being autistic is in some way a bad thing or a shameful thing.
People who don’t know any better. In other words, people who picked up the habit of using person-first language because it’s so ubiquitous in the discourse on autism (thanks to the influence of autistiphobic bigots), and who’ve just never really thought enough about the implications of person-first language to recognize its intrinsically autistiphobic nature.
It’s generally a waste of time to argue with bigots, whether it’s about autistiphobic language or any other issue, because bigots don’t argue in good faith. Since they’re driven by fear and hatred of difference rather than by reason, they’ll just double down and keep repeating the same spurious arguments—or resort to personal attacks, condescension, tone policing, or whatever other derailing tactic they can come up with—rather than acknowledge a valid counterargument.
So I’m writing this essay primarily for the benefit of those who fall into the second category: those who don’t know any better, or at least didn’t know any better up until now. If you were honestly unaware that person-first language is autistiphobic and that the majority of autistic people these days consider it objectionable—well, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Given the sheer pervasiveness of autistiphobic attitudes and autistiphobic language in the world today, and given that person-first language is even taught in college classrooms and professional training programs, you can hardly be blamed for having accepted and adopted such language without realizing that it’s autistiphobic and disrespectful of autistic people. You’re not a bad person for not having known any better than what you were taught. And now that you do know better, you can do better. You can stop using person-first language and just call autistic people autistic, instead of continuing to inadvertently disrespect and stigmatize us.
The big lie that autistiphobic bigots tell about person-first language is that person-first language is the “respectful” way to talk about autistic people. There’s a specific set of spurious arguments that autistiphobic bigots use to support this lie, or to justify their continued use of person-first language when autistic people and our allies object to it. If you were taught to use person-first language when talking about autistic people, chances are that you were also taught to accept these arguments. You may have heard these arguments from people in positions of authority, or from people who supposedly had some sort of expertise on the topic—and as a result, you might have accepted them without giving them the necessary critical scrutiny. So let’s do that critical scrutiny right here and now. Let’s look at the three most common arguments for person-first language, one by one, and debunk them.
• • •
Spurious Argument #1: “Person-first language is more respectful because it separates the person from the autism.”
No. This is exactly why person-first language is disrespectful of autistic people.
Who would want to “separate the person from the autism”? Only someone who believes, deep down, that there’s something wrong with being autistic—someone who believes that being autistic in some way a bad thing or a shameful thing. And anyone who believes that it’s bad or shameful to be autistic is, by definition, an autistiphobic bigot (just like anyone who believes that it’s bad or shameful to be gay is a homophobic bigot, and anyone who believes that it’s bad or shameful to be Black is a racist bigot).
Autism doesn’t exist separately from autistic people. It’s not actually a thing that a person can “have.” It isn’t a disease, like a tumor or a virus. You can’t cut an autism out of a person and preserve it in a bottle. You can’t isolate autism in a laboratory and have a little test tube or petri dish full of autism. Being autistic informs every facet of a person’s development, embodiment, cognition, and experience, in ways that are pervasive and inseparable from the person’s overall being. So the autistic person can’t be separated from the autism, and the autism can’t be separated from the autistic person.
The idea that an autistic person can be somehow “separated from the autism” is an autistiphobic fantasy. It’s a fantasy that appeals to those whose autistiphobia runs so deep that on some level they see being autistic as incompatible with being fully human, and therefore can only see an autistic person as human by pretending that there’s a non-autistic version of the person somehow hidden under the autism. Thus, person-first language is born of a fundamental inability or unwillingness to accept autistic people as they are. There’s nothing respectful about that.
In fact, person-first language was originally developed by autistiphobic parents of autistic children, and has largely been propagated and insisted upon by such parents—parents who hold the autistiphobic belief that autism is some sort of horrible tragic disorder, and that this disorder functions as a sort of shell under which their imagined “real” (i.e., non-autistic) children are hiding.
These parents are so intensely autistiphobic that they refuse to accept and love the autistic children they actually have, and instead they’ve constructed a twisted fantasy world in which the terrible disorder of autism has stolen their “real” children from them. According to this fantasy, if parents fight hard enough against autism and steadfastly refuse to accept their autistic children as they are, they might someday magically remove the autism from their children and thus “recover” the non-autistic children that they’ve wished for all along.
Person-first language was expressly intended to promote and reinforce this sick autistiphobic fantasy, and that’s still the primary purpose that person-first language ultimately serves. There are multi-billion-dollar industries today that have been created specifically to exploit this fantasy for profit. These industries include the “autism charity” industry (comprised of money-grubbing “charitable” organizations that raise funds by portraying the existence of autistic children as a heart-rending tragedy), the “behavioral therapy” industry (comprised of providers of bogus “therapies” like ABA, in which autistic children are abused, coerced, and traumatized into imitating the outward behavior of neurotypical children, at the expense of their long-term psychological well-being), and the vast industry of quack pseudo-medical “autism cures” (many of which cause lasting physical and psychological harm, sometimes fatal harm, to the children on which they’re inflicted). These industries all harm autistic people and defraud the families of autistic people, while encouraging the “recovery” fantasy and fanning the flames of autistiphobia.
Every time you use person-first language, you’re complicit in all of this. I’m sure that’s not your intention, but actual impact matters more than naïve good intentions. Every time you use person-first language, you’re helping to promote and reinforce a twisted and hateful autistiphobic fantasy. Every time you use person-first language, you’re helping to legitimize the industries which profit by exploiting that fantasy—and thus you’re complicit in the harm that these industries do to autistic people.
And there’s definitely nothing respectful about that.
• • •
Spurious Argument #2: “We have to put the person first to show that they’re people first and that autism doesn’t define them.”
This is just straight-up nonsense. The whole debate about whether to say “autistic person” or (ugh) “person with autism” originated in English-speaking countries and has continued to rage primarily in English-speaking countries. And in the English language, it’s standard grammar to place the adjective before the noun.
Anyone fluent in the English language implicitly understands that the noun is primary regardless of where it’s placed in relation to the adjective. It’s understood that any adjectives placed before the noun merely serve to provide further information about the noun. When I write about a blue Norwegian parrot, for instance, anyone fluent in English understands that it’s first and foremost a parrot, and that its color and nationality are secondary to its parrotness.
Anyone fluent the English language also understands that adjectives aren’t exclusive—in other words, the presence of a given adjective before a noun doesn’t imply that it’s the one adjective that entirely and exclusively defines that noun. When I refer to a parrot as “the blue parrot,” everyone understands that I’m not in any way implying that the parrot is entirely and exclusively defined by its blueness. Everyone understands that the parrot can be blue and also Norwegian, male, large, resting, and all manner of other things at the same time.
The autistiphobic bigots who react to the phrase “autistic people” with indignant shouts of “Their autism doesn’t define them!” are perfectly aware of how adjectives work in English. When you say “six-year-old children,” these bigots never jump in with shouts of “Their age doesn’t define them!” When you say “tall people” they never jump in with “Their height doesn’t define them!” They don’t demand that you say “children who are six years old,” or “people living with tallness.” So the argument that we have to use person-first language in order to affirm that autistic people are “people first” and that “autism doesn’t define them” is not only downright ridiculous, it’s also disingenuous.
The real reason these people insist on person-first language, and the real reason they freak out when people use the adjective “autistic” the same way one would use any other adjective, is autistiphobia. Deep down, because of their own unresolved psychological issues, they fear and despise autistic people. But because they need to convince themselves of their own goodness, they can’t admit to themselves that they feel such fear and hatred toward a group of people—especially not a group which, in the case of many autistiphobes, might include their own children.
So instead, they buy into the autistiphobic fantasy already discussed: the fantasy that the autism can somehow be separated from the person. This enables them to pretend that it’s only some horrid “disorder” or “condition” called autism toward which they feel aversion, rather than actual autistic human beings. It’s exactly the same strategy of self-deception that homophobic right-wing Christian bigots use when they pretend that they don’t hate gay people and instead just hate “the sin of homosexuality.”
When a person relies on denial and fantasy to protect their own psyche from deeply uncomfortable truths, the arrangement is fragile. Anything that contradicts the fantasy threatens to bring the whole thing crashing down, and threatens to bring the person face to face with the realities they’re so desperately hiding from themselves. If they were to accept even for a moment that the autism can’t ever be separated from the autistic person, they’d have to face an overwhelming flood of deeply uncomfortable repressed feelings and repressed truths (including, in the case of many autistiphobic parents, the truth that they’ve been unable to accept and love the person their autistic child actually is).
This is why so many autistiphobes don’t just insist on using person-first language, but also aggressively insist that everyone else should use person-first language, too. The fantasy is so fragile, and their need to keep hiding reality from themselves is so strong, that even hearing the phrase “autistic person” feels like an existential threat to them on some visceral unconscious level.
They can’t look at where their strong feelings and reactions are truly coming from (since that would involve looking at their own denial), so instead they come up with desperate rationalizations to justify those feelings and reactions. And that’s how they end up making such a patently absurd argument as “We have to put the person first to show that they’re people first and that autism doesn’t define them”—an argument which, as we’ve now seen, makes no sense, given how adjectives actually work in the English language.
So once again, we find that person-first language has nothing to do with being respectful of autistic people. As previously noted, the fantasy that person-first language serves to promote—the fantasy that autism can be separated from an autistic person—is a fantasy that exists for the comfort of autistiphobes, and has dire consequences for autistic people. So using person-first language is in fact grossly disrespectful of autistic people, because it prioritizes the fantasies and fragilities of autistiphobes over autistic well-being.
• • •
Spurious Argument #3: “I’m a trained professional [or I’ve listened to professionals] and person-first language is what I was taught to use; it’s standard in the field.”
We live in a profoundly autistiphobic society in which the discourses on autism, including the academic and professional discourses, have been dominated from the beginning by autistiphobic voices and viewpoints. The reason that person-first language is the standard in whatever academic or professional fields you’re involved in (or in the academic and professional fields of whatever non-autistic “experts” you’ve learned about autism from) is that autistiphobia is deeply ingrained in the history, literature, conventions, and practices of those fields. This applies to fields as disparate as psychology, medicine, education, social work, journalism, and neurobiology (and if you think a physical science like biology can’t have bigotry ingrained in it, go look up “scientific racism”).
The professors, professionals, and other “experts” who taught you to use person-first language were either autistiphobic bigots themselves, or else were well-intentioned but ill-informed people who learned from the work of autistiphobic bigots and passed the autistiphobic language and lessons along to the next generation without recognizing them as harmful.
So please, never say anything like “Person-first language is what I was taught to use,” unless it’s the first half of a sentence and the second half is something along the lines of “but now I know better and will never use it again.” Believe me, autistic people already know quite well that person-first language is what you were taught to use. We already know that you learned about autism from autistiphobic bigots, or from people who uncritically passed along the harmful lessons of autistiphobic bigots. We already know that autistiphobic bigotry is deeply ingrained in whatever academic or professional fields you’ve turned to for knowledge in the past. You don’t need to remind us of any of this. We don’t want to hear your attempts to justify your use of autistiphobic language. We’re not asking you to explain yourself, we’re asking you to start doing better.
Your society is autistiphobic. Your field is autistiphobic. Your “experts” are autistiphobic. Your teachers were autistiphobic. We’re asking you to be better and to do better. Doing better means recognizing that many things you were taught about autistic people were just plain wrong, and that much of the language that you were taught was acceptable or preferable to use when speaking about us—including person-first language—is actually stigmatizing, insulting, and harmful to us. Doing better means refusing to perpetuate the autistiphobic language, beliefs, and practices that you were taught, even when that refusal puts you at odds with the authorities and traditions from which you’ve previously learned.
• • •
Every autistic person who spends any significant length of time working to combat autistiphobia within public, academic, or professional spheres—especially if any of their work takes place on social media—eventually learns an ironic truth: the non-autistics who are most insistent on using person-first language when talking about us, the ones who most loudly declare that person-first language is more “respectful” because “it puts the person first,” always turn out to be the ones who have the least respect for us and who don’t really see us as people at all.
In two decades of autism-related advocacy, teaching, and scholarship, I’ve found this correlation between autistiphobic bigotry and person-first language to be a 100 percent reliable constant. It’s a truth widely recognized within the autistic community these days. Most of us know that we can never trust a person-firster, and those who don’t learn this lesson through observation or by listening to fellow autistics end up learning the hard way sooner or later.
A lot of autistiphobes who’ve been called out for using person-first language have tried to dodge the whole issue by using euphemisms like “on the spectrum” as another way to avoid saying “autistic.” Guess what? We autistics see exactly what you’re doing. We’re notoriously good at pattern recognition. Whether it’s person-first language or euphemisms, we can tell when someone is trying desperately to avoid just calling us autistic. And we know that the refusal to just call autistic people autistic is the universally reliable number one sign that someone is an autistiphobic bigot.
As I explained earlier in this essay, the refusal to call autistic people autistic is often a sign that a person’s autistiphobia is so intense that they’ve sought refuge in the desperate fantasy that the autism can be separated from the person. And of course, calling an autistic person autistic is an acknowledgement of reality that threatens to bring this whole pathetic fragile fantasy crashing down.
Any doubts I may have had about the accuracy of this explanation have been dispelled by the results of an experiment that I like to perform when I give trainings on autism to groups of psychotherapists, social workers, special ed teachers, or other professionals. The experiment is simple: one by one, I have each participant look me in the eyes and say to me, “You are autistic.”
I’m not a big fan of eye contact, but in this case it’s worth it. The autistiphobia of many of the participants is instantly exposed, and it also becomes quite evident just how desperately they’re clinging to their pitiful autistiphobic fantasy that we’re “people with autism” rather than autistic people.
You see, it turns out that when I ask these adult professionals to look me in the eye and acknowledge out loud that I’m autistic, many of them just can’t do it. They squirm. They look down and avoid my gaze. They argue and bargain and complain. Some of them shut down completely. Some of them fly into indignant rages and storm out of the room. A lot of them cry. One time, one of them threw up. Autistiphobia runs deep, and its connection to the terms people use to talk about us should not be underestimated.
A person who can’t just call autistic people autistic is a person autistic people can’t trust, and a person who should never ever be permitted to be in a position of any authority over autistic people or to work with autistic people in any professional capacity.
If you’re a non-autistic person who’s accustomed to using person-first language or euphemisms, put yourself to the test. Start calling autistic people autistic. If it’s easy for you to make the switch to calling us autistic, that’s excellent. You’re now one more voice refusing to perpetuate autistiphobic language and the autistiphobic attitudes and fantasies associated with such language. Thank you.
And if it’s hard for you to discard the person-first language and the evasive euphemisms? If it’s hard for you to start calling us autistic? If you find yourself resisting the change, making excuses, having trouble just saying or writing the phrase “autistic people”? Well, now you’ve learned something important about yourself, and you have some work to do.