What term most respectfully describes someone who has autism? Some government agencies, researchers and press outlets (including SFARI.org) promote a person-first approach — that is, the use of ‘person with autism’ instead of ‘autistic person.’ Rather than define a person by his or her condition, the person-first approach is intended to emphasize his or her value as an individual, one who just happens to have autism.
Yet this approach is highly controversial, according to a study published 1 July in Autism. The researchers asked nearly 3,500 people in the autism community in the U.K., including individuals with autism, their family members and friends, and professionals, about which term they use and why. Although professionals in the field preferred ‘person with autism,’ adults who have autism and their family members favored ‘autistic.’ Using ‘person with autism,’ many argued, separates the individual from his or her autism and implies that there is a ‘normal’ person underneath.
As lead researcher Elizabeth Pellicano, a developmental cognitive scientist at University College London,wrote Monday on TheConversation.com: “There is no one way of describing autism on which everyone can agree.” Nor, she added, will there ever be. The best way to move forward, Pellicano wrote, seems to be to agree to disagree.