Imagine For a Second…
Imagine somebody telling you that you can’t refer to yourself the way you want to, simply because they think they know better than you what you should refer to yourself as. Imagine that, for example, you called yourself “white” or “a white person” and somebody who wasn’t white came and said to you “you aren’t white, you are a person with whiteness. Remember, you are a person first before your whiteness.”
Autistic people get this all the time. Non-autistic people come up and say to us “Oh but you aren’t autistic, you are a person with autism! Remember, you’re a person before your autism.” There are a few problems with this.
A big issue I have with this is identity policing. Identity policing is when somebody tries to police or control how you identify, usually in a condescending or disrespectful manner. Just as a straight person shouldn’t be able to tell a lgbt person how to identify and what label to use, a non-autistic, or allistic person, shouldn’t be able to tell an autistic person how to identify. Nobody should get to decide how somebody else should identify, especially somebody outside the label. On the same hand though, if an autistic person wants to be called a person-with-autism that should be respected.
Another big argument for person-first language is “Remember you are a person first before your autism.” I have multiple issues with this.
The first one is that you cannot separate a person from their autism. Autism is a part of them and always will be. It has been present since birth and pervasive, which means it affects everything about an autistic person. Senses, socialization, perception, communication, thinking, everything. Autistic is a major label for myself, as much as if not more than any other label I use. Autism is an integral part of who I am, without autism I would be a completely different person. And sure, autism makes some things hard, but autism also makes some things so incomparably great that I would never change who I am.
The second issue falls into language and meaning. You say “person-first!” so you can remind yourself that I am a person. As if my autism makes me less of a person. As if we as a community aren’t being hurt by this idea that autism makes us less. Because if you need to remind yourself that I am a person worthy of respect, that is not my problem, it’s yours. And it is a problem that you need to sort out for yourself. Think about it for a second for real. Think about how if somebody had to remind themselves that you are a person, and separate you from something that makes you who you are, just to consider you human. How would that feel?
On the topic of acceptance, identity first language works better for that as well. When you just speak candidly and say “Oh yeah that’s my friend Ev, they’re autistic” it makes it a lot more normalized than “That’s my friend, they have autism.” The second one makes it sound like it is something bad or something that needs to be hush-hush. I know mostly what autistic people and even their family want is inclusion and acceptance. Well inclusion happens naturally when somebody is accepted, and somebody is accepted when others aren’t ashamed of them or stigmatizing them. Words are powerful, and, especially with children, if you say something in a negative way they are going to assume that thing is bad. Well if you say “oh they’re autistic, that is why they do those things” it gives a child(or an adult) an explanation which makes something less odd and easier to accept and include. When somebody says something like “That’s Timmy and he has autism. His autism makes him do those things.” it comes across as inherently negative and can frighten somebody, which leads them to avoid the autistic person.
All that said as well, a majority of the Autistic community prefers to be called autistic. Of course we respect those of us who do not, but mostly we prefer identity first. Like the Deaf community and a few others, we want to be known as Autistic, our identity, and have that respected and accepted.