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My thoughts on identity-first vs. person-first language

By Ziggie

When you hear the word identity, what comes to mind first? Is it your heritage? Does your career define how you see yourself? Or is it a combination of life experiences and learning to accept facets of yourself that makes up your identity? What about others defining you and labeling your personhood without your permission? The word identity is linked to who we are as unique individuals. Autistic is also an identifier. With that qualification, there has been a lengthy conversation around using person-first language vs. identity-first language when it comes to describing the autistic experience. 

This month I’ll be breaking down these two different terms and providing context on why someone with ASD would utilize one descriptor over the other one. I also want to state that my opinion is my own, and others with ASD will have different thoughts as well. That’s perfectly fine because I’m an advocate of free-thought, and we have to make space so that we can all share our experiences. 

The first term that I will elaborate on is the “identity-first” language. Identity-first means centering ASD with a person’s identification. For many on the spectrum, autism is intrinsically linked with who they are as a person. They cannot separate themselves from their ASD, so an individual’s experience is directly in line with their diagnosis. 

Next, the second term I will discuss is the “person-first” language. Person-first means putting the person before their condition. For a plethora of individuals, their humanity is something they wish to have acknowledged before anything else. So a person may refer to their ASD diagnosis by saying they are “a person with autism.” 

When we look at “identity-first” and “person-first” language, both terms are describing life experiences. I don’t think either name attempts to negate the condition of ASD. Both elaborate upon a person’s unique life history. 

To offer my input in this matter of terminology, I will say that as an African American, my heritage and ancestry denote a time where my skin color would make me a second-class citizen. It was in that fight for civil rights that the term “Person of Color” was created. With that definition, people were then compelled to acknowledge a person’s humanity before their skin color. With my ASD diagnosis, I know that society will view me as Black before anything else, without my permission. I don’t get to say; I’m just autistic when my reality as a Black male who has dealt with racism is a sum of my experiences along with ASD. Sometimes I’ll use the phrase “as an autistic person of color” to note particular life circumstances. Other times I’ll say, “as a Black person with autism.” I utilize person-first and identity-first language interchangeably, depending on the setting. 

I think it’s up to the individual to decide on how they want to be identified. Ask someone with ASD if they prefer a person-first or identity-first language when they describe themselves. I don’t think we should ever reach a point where a person’s perspective is negated unless they express themselves in academic terminology or how someone else wants to define them. Please feel empowered to choose whatever identifier works best for you. If you have any opinions on person-first vs. identity-first language, I would love to hear from you!

About How I See It

How I See It is a new series on PAAutism and ASDNext. In each installment, we ask people in the Pennsylvania autism community – individuals, family members, professionals and more – to share their thoughts on a particular topic.

This month’s topic is identity – specifically, identity-first vs. person-first language. Is someone autistic? Are they a person with autism? That’s what these writers will discuss.

Read what others say about this month’s topic here