Wed, 22 Jul 2015

‘Being Autistic’ - terminology

I contributed two chapters to the recently published book Being Autistic – Nine adults share their journeys from discovery to acceptance. This book is aimed at adults having recently identified as autistic. To help readers reflect on the terminologies used by most autistics and most of those referring to us, and what are some of the implications of these choices, I wrote the following chapter:

Being Autistic cover

I am not a person with autism. I am an autistic person.

Receiving a diagnosis or identifying as autistic – can be very empowering and often entails talking and/or writing about autism. There are many words and expressions to choose from. You might have noticed that the contributors to this book express different preferences in their writing. To help you navigate your way through this terminology, here are a few of my choices and their implications.

You can choose whether to use identity-first (I am an autistic person) or person-first (I am a person with autism) language. As autism is an integral part of who we are – the way our brains and bodies work – many autistics are keen on the use of identity-first language and refer to themselves as ‘autistics’. I find person-first language (being called ‘a person with autism’) offensive as it implies that we should strive for a state when we are ‘without autism’. A useful way to think about this is that you would say a person with a cold, but not someone with Jewishness, or with left-handedness. Of course I also respect each individual’s choice of the language they use to refer to themselves.

This distinction is linked to how you consider our differences and how we fit in society. I know of two basic models. The medical model, the most common in our society, explains the difficulties we may have as caused by us not fitting in. To improve our lives, we must change (e.g., forcing ourselves to look others in the eyes, not stimming,1 etc.). The social model,which I and many other autistics prefer, considers that if someone has difficulties fitting in that is because there are barriers that should be removed; society must work to eliminate discrimination and accept us as we are in all our diversity. While the medical model finds autism to be a problem that must ideally be cured and suggests interventions, the social model promotes equality, respect and inclusion.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), on the spectrum, Asperger’s Syndrome or type, Aspie, high (HFA) and low functioning and classic autism, etc. – a great many terms are used to label us, but we tend to use fewer to express our identities. One reason for so many is to reflect the diversity of autistics. A common saying, attributed to Lorna Wing, is that once you’ve met one autistic, you’ve met one autistic. Several of these words classify us along a spectrum with abilities ranging from very poor (low-functioning autism and classic autism) to above average (high-functioning autism and Asperger). This neat continuum, however, does not match the more complex reality. Some autistics will find some tasks very easy some days and impossible to do at other times; individual profiles tend to be spiky and changeable. Although my diagnosis was ‘on the autistic spectrum – of the Asperger’s type’, I feel that it is more inclusive to identify simply as autistic and support everyone in this constellation of diagnoses and identities.

What about everyone else – the non-autistics? A word often used by autistics (and others) to describe most of those who are not is ‘neurotypical’ (i.e., have a typical brain), abbreviated as NT. The world is made up of neurodiverse individuals: people with a variety of brains and minds, most are neurotypical and some are neurodivergent including autistics and everyone else whose brain is not typical (e.g., epileptic, dyslexic, etc.). Being neurodivergent is not intrinsically positive or negative. The social model celebrates a neurodiverse world in which autistics are fully accepted with all our differences, a world I want to live in.

To explore some of these issues in more depth, here are a few good starting points:


1 ‘Stimming’ is self stimulatory behaviour such as hand flapping or spinning.

Being Autistic – Nine adults share their journeys from discovery to acceptance is published AutAngel, a community interest company. To find out more about the book and get your copy, visit AutAngel’s website.

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