What Does Identity Language Choice Mean for an Autistic?

Is LinkedIn promoting its polling feature? I must have missed the memo. All I see as I scroll through LinkedIn these days are polls. Polls about leadership and jobs and benefits. Polls about inclusion and interviews and, well, it turns out you can make a poll about any topic. Just scroll through your LinkedIn feed; it’s all there. 

Sometimes I play along to see how everyone else voted (you only see the updated results if you vote or wait until the vote closes but I’m too impatient). But every so often, a poll comes along that fires a few synapses in the old grey squish ball. 

Earlier today, I scrolled through a poll asking about language preference, specifically autistic self-identification. 

It comes down to “an autistic person” or “a person with autism.” 

If you know anything about autism awareness, there is a lot of discussion around this topic and some heated debates.

Strange that there is so much chatter out there about language choice. But believe it or not, your language choice influences how you think. (Lera Boroditsky gave a powerful Ted Talk about the influence of language choice on this subject.) So, how we choose to be identified reflects how we think of ourselves and the role autism plays in our identity.

In the end, it’s personal preference; each autistic person (or person with autism) has reasons for their choice in language. My own choice is identity first: autistic person. 

The poll I mentioned above led me to think of an experience with a coworker who asked me this same question. Wanting to avoid insulting autistic coworkers, she asked me what language was appropriate. 

Of course, I said, each person is different. I prefer “autistic person,” but not everyone does. 

Every autistic person is passionate about their language choice. 

But, looking back at the experience, it never occurred to me the importance of explaining why that is. 

Why did I choose to identify myself as autistic first? Why is language so important when discussing autistic identity?

Autistic awareness is essential, but that isn’t my goal. My goal is to help people understand autism. If I can’t articulate my reasons, I lose authority when explaining autism to others. While it would be nice to write off our choices as – it was MY choice; therefore, you must respect it – that isn’t how others learn from us. Respect branches from understanding. 

Many neurotypicals don’t understand why autistic people are so passionate about the language around autism. The most important takeaway from this for neurotypicals is understanding why language preference in autistic identification is so important and being respectful of our individual choices. No, we don’t expect neurotypicals to read our minds and know every individual’s language preference. But once our choice is shared, it should be respected.

After gnawing on my thoughts for a bit, I am ready to articulate my “why” in choosing identity first language.  

I recognize the weight of our society’s impact on me because of my autism. Being autistic becomes an obstacle in the world at large. Our systems and social experiences are defined by neurotypical standards and not aligned – nor accepting – of my autism. I’m expected to adapt to neurotypical standards instead of being myself.

When I step outside my door, my autism, whether or not I want it, defines me.  

Friendships fall away because I say or do “weird” things or need breaks between social events. 

For those who don’t know I’m autistic, I’m “a little off” in their eyes.

Stores, my office, and other public places are sensory bombs. The sights and sounds and buzz of voices and noises are overwhelming. 

My job operates counter to my brain. 

Because society is not inclusive of autistics, my autism does define my place in it. 

And that is why I choose to be called an autistic person. 

That said, I would like that to change. With education, understanding, and acceptance in our society, perhaps it will. 

One day, I’d like to identify myself as a person with autism. But to do that, society will need to not only accept me but INCLUDE me as I am. When society no longer forces my autism to define me, I can identify myself as a person with autism. 

Until then, I prefer “autistic person.” For me, it accurately represents me.

I’d love to hear from others on their language preference and why. Feel free to leave a note in the comments. There is no right or wrong choice.

2 thoughts on “What Does Identity Language Choice Mean for an Autistic?

  1. I understand your identity first preference of being called “autistic person”. I am on the autistic spectrum and I personally do not have a preference, but I know others do have a preference. Thanks for sharing!

    Feel free to read some of my blogs 🙂


  2. I prefer autistic person as well. It is like being gay. It is a hard wired part of who I am that makes experiences different from the “norm”. I wouldn’t be the same person if I wasn’t autistic and I don’t want some “cure” for it. The thought is horrifying in a _Brave New World_ sort of way. Sure I don’t want all the bad stuff, but being “cured” would mean that *I* would cease to exist. I am who I am and I have zero desire to stop being me. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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