respectful autism language for people who aren't autistic

Anonymous said to :

Regarding your post about language politics and history, Do you recommend NT people use autistic or person first language as a default?

Of course I would change what I’m using based on the preferences of the autistic person I’m talking to, but if I don’t know preferences or if I’m talking to NT people?

I realize you can’t speak for everybody, I’m just looking for some guidance.

realsocialskills said:

I think the principle to keep in mind is that your language choices should always reflect respect for the people you’re talking about. The best way to do that is somewhat context-dependent.

I think usually the best thing to do is to alternate between “autistic” and “person with autism”, and explain why you’re doing that. Here’s an example of an article written by a speech language pathologist that does that well.

In certain contexts, it might be better to use one or the other. If you’re speaking at a developmental disabilities conference, it’s probably better to use person first language because that’s what most people present are likely to feel respected by.

If you’re speaking to a group of people who identify as autistic self advocates, you should say autistic. If you’re writing stuff on Tumblr or in social justice circles, you’re more likely to encounter a lot of autistic people who are offended by person first language, so “autistic” is probably a good default.

If you’re speaking at an autism conference dominated by parents and providers, it gets more complicated because they are likely to get very offended if you don’t use person first language, and spend a lot of time arguing with you about it. Sometimes it’s a fight worth having for the sake of expressing solidarity with autistic people who tend to be silenced in those spaces; sometimes the best thing is to say “autistic,” explain why, and let them be offended.

Sometimes it’s better to let it go and use the language they prefer so that they will listen to the other things you’re saying and not get hung up on words. That’s a complicated choice and there aren’t always right or wrong answers. (If there are autistic speakers at the conference as well, it’s worth checking in with them about what they would prefer that you do. If you want to express solidarity, it’s best to have people who are directly affected take the lead on issues like this.)

Also, most people are not offended by “on the spectrum” or “people on the autism spectrum”. It’s not associated with silencing autistic people in the way that professional use of “people with autism” is. When you’re in a group of people who have very strong views in opposite directions about “people with autism”, “on the spectrum” is often a good option.

tl;dr “Autistic” and “person with autism” are both personal berserk buttons for a lot of people those phrases describe. If you’re writing/speaking for an audience of people who have an emphatic preference for how they describe themselves, use that word. If you’re writing for a general audience, alternate between the two and explain why you’re doing so.