The cognitive dissonance of “person-first” references to #autistic people

two people arguing, face-to-face, pointing fingers at each other
What you call us matters. Please choose your words mindfully.

There seems to be a persistent tendency for people to use “person-first” references to autistic people.

That’s unfortunate. I’m sure the intention is to affirm the humanity of the person (separate from the disorder/condition), which I suppose is noble in its own way.

But what it really does is make us autistic folks out to be “suffering” from something that — if only it were eradicated and removed from us — would restore us to wholeness. Make us just like everyone else.

I’ll spare you my rant about that. Let me use another means to illustrate how person-first autism language makes me feel, as someone who considers autism my default mode, and who would be made less-whole, not more, if “it” were removed from my self.

Identity is a tricky business. We all have our perceptions of ourselves, our understandings of what makes us US. That goes for everyone.

Now, how’s about we do a little experiment with person-first language for neurotypical identities…

A man is not a “man” — he’s a person with maleness.

A white man is not a “white man” — he’s a person with the “co-morbid” conditions of maleness and whiteness.

A woman is not a “woman” — she’s a person with femininity (well, supposedly, anyway – depends how you define “femininity”).

An American is a person with Americanism — actually, that apparently only applies to half of us, since the other half seem determined to trash our core values and plunge us into despotic, xenophobic fascism.

A Canadian is a person with Canadianism. I believe that’s more reliable than the “with Americanism” assignation.

See what I’m getting at?

When you excise a core defining feature of a person’s identity from their living, breathing self, you sort of objectify them a bit. And you make that core defining feature optional. Because it can be safely removed, and they’re still a person. Right? Well, a person, yes — but not the sort of person they know themselves to be. And not the sort of person you can truly get to know. Because you’ve denied one of the main characteristics of their nature, out of an intention to be … compassionate? Dunno. Or maybe sensitive?

Whatever the original intention, the effect is just a bit dehumanizing. And a lot of us don’t like it.

So, if you’re into PFL – person-first language – please reconsider before you use it regarding autism. Cancer is one thing. Plaque psoriasis is another. Autism… well, that’s in a league all its own. And I wouldn’t leave that domain for all the money (or well-intended compassion) in the world.

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16 thoughts on “The cognitive dissonance of “person-first” references to #autistic people

  1. There are people with autism/autistic people who become horribly hurt and offended if you don’t use person first language. I don’t personally care what term you use. It’s not an important issue to me but I respect that it’s an important issue to other people. I think that if someone initially refers to you by a term you dislike, you should be understanding and give them the benefit of the doubt but you should also feel free too correct them and tell them that you prefer another term for yourself. The respectful thing for that person to do would be to then make an effort to use your term of preference when they address you specifically but they shouldn’t necessarily be expected to use that term universally especially if they have people in their lives who prefer the other term. In the autism community it can be hard to say or do anything that pleases everyone or even the majority of people. Often some people are offended by things other people appreciate.

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  2. Pingback: Identity First – Ryan Boren

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