I do not have autism, but my family is touched by autism in several age ranges and in different magnitudes. I cannot speak for autistic people as one of them, but as someone who “gets it”, I can’t hold my tongue on this issue. I’ve recently reblogged a post about it, but I want to add my voice to the mix.
I came across a discussion on LinkedIn recently that piqued my interest, and the comment section inspired this post. The ORIGINAL discussion was regarding an article posted by the author, who is autistic. The first few comments were related to the article – and then the thread was hijacked and turned into a discussion of person first language. The discussion has since been removed.
This was rude.
What is more than rude is people who are NOT autistic telling those who ARE what they should call THEMSELVES, or telling them how to refer to their community. I have seen this time and time again, on blog threads, on facebook pages. Time and time again, it is a NON-autistic person telling an AUTISTIC person – “Person first”, don’t say autistic!”
I get that it’s coming from a good place. I really do. I even said “with autism” and “on the spectrum”, and didn’t use the word autistic until I heard from actual autistic people that this was (generally) their preference. And I still use these other terms with people who find them more comfortable (usually parents, academics, therapists, etc.). I will follow their lead. But I will also share why I use the word autistic, because I want them to understand. I use the word AUTISTIC to honor the wishes of autistic people themselves.
One arguement often thrown in by non-autistic people to justify person-first language is “what about those who can’t speak for themselves? How do we speak for them?”, as if this specific instance where there is a lack of surety in word choice somehow lessens the validity of an autistic individual’s personal choice to be called autistic (it doesn’t – it’s a specious arguement). And I found a fantastic (and really very obvious) answer to this issue of speaking/choosing for those who cannot communicate for themselves (yet) in a comment on another blog:
“What boggles me is that we’re constantly accused of speaking on behalf of non-speaking autistic people who can’t make their own preference known. But… erm… isn’t that exactly what person-first proponents are doing as well? So if speaking on behalf of non-speaking autistics is equally presumptuous, maybe we should at least respect the people who at least share their neurology if not their exact symptoms?”
Please, if you are not autistic, DO NOT tell someone who is autistic what to call themselves. When they explain their choice of the word, say thank you. If you are honestly curious and want to know more, ask. And then LISTEN TO THE ANSWERS. Don’t defend your choice, don’t argue to justify yourself. It’s your choice to use the words that feel most comfortable to you in YOUR life. If your profession dictates a particular word choice, that’s fine. But respect those who choose a different way in their life, especially when it is THEIR experience.
Autistic children don’t stay children forever. As family members of autistic children, if we don’t respect the choices of adult autistics – we’re setting a bad precedent on how we will treat them when they grow up.