Words matter to us at Spectrum. As journalists, we know they have the power not only to inform and educate, but also to shape cultural attitudes. That’s why it’s important to us to use language that is respectful of the autism community and reflects current usage in the field.
We have made changes to our style guide over the past several years. For example, we now call autism a condition rather than a disorder or a disease; we refer to those in a study as participants rather than subjects; and we never refer to anyone with a condition as not ‘normal.’
When referring to people on the spectrum, Spectrum’s style has been to use person-first language (‘person with autism’). The rationale for this language is to put a person’s humanity first, before their condition. We adopted this style based on recommendations from the American Psychological Association and the National Center on Disability and Journalism, and based on what professionals in the field tend to use.
But language evolves, and many people in the autism community now strongly prefer identity-first language (‘autistic person’). This terminology embraces autism as part of a person’s identity rather than a condition that is separate from them. Some professionals are also beginning to prefer this language. The style guide of the National Center on Disability and Journalism no longer recommends person-first language. Instead, it simply recommends asking a person how they prefer to be identified.
In light of this shift, we’ve decided to start using person-first and identity-first language interchangeably. As always, if a writer expresses a preference, we will defer to that. Our writers will also start asking sources on the spectrum how they prefer to be identified in a story.
We believe using person-first and identity-first language interchangeably is the most inclusive choice, as it makes room for both preferences. Our intention underlying both approaches is the same: to write about autism in a way that is accurate, clear and respectful.
Published on July 9th, 2018.