Person-First Language: The Right Way, Right?

Person-First Language: The Right Way, Right?

As the importance of rhetoric remains a controversial topic today in political discourse, a split has risen in the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Community over the issue of person first language.  Person-First Language reaffirms the idea that those who are affected by disabilities are not defined by them, and have unique identities that are often overshadowed by the harmful language used to describe them.  Whether or not you have been exposed to this type of language may not have been obvious to you at the time. Have you ever heard or read references to someone on the spectrum as a “person with autism” as opposed to an “autistic person”, if so then you have experienced its implementation first hand.  

Person-first language advocates believe that the words we choose to use truly do have an impact on society’s attitude towards those with autism and their ultimate treatment.  This belief is further explored in the article “Put me first: The importance of person-first language by Mary Tobin. Tobin states that , “Person-first language is a philosophy of putting individuals before their disability. As you will see, this is about more than just language; it goes deeper into our attitudes toward others and how those attitudes translate into action” (Tobin, 2011).  The goal of this language is to change the attitude of defining a person by their condition, into celebrating that person. While there is large support for the use of this type of language to describe individuals with ASD, there is a controversy that this line of thinking has the reverse of its intended effect.

Those opposed to person-first language prefer to be called an “autistic person” because they believe having ASD is a beautiful and unique aspect of their identity, and to change the semantics ultimately chalks up their identities to misfortune and devalues them. Others would argue that this type of language is actually harmful to the identities of those with ASD.  They believe that being “an autistic person” is inseparable from their person. To make a distinction is to reinforce that having ASD, creates an idea that they are somehow less than. This sentiment is explained by an article, “The Significance of Semantics: Person-First Language: Why It Mattersby Lydia Brown.  Brown states that “ when we say ‘person with autism,’ we say that it is unfortunate and an accident that a person is Autistic. We affirm that the person has value and worth, and that autism is entirely separate from what gives him or her value and worth. In fact, we are saying that autism is detrimental to value and worth as a person, which is why we separate the condition with the word ‘with’ or ‘has’” (Brown, 2011).  This side of the argument has the same goal as person-first language, yet it uses different logic which produces the opposite execution.        

Another point of view believes that our focus should not be on language, but the intention of the individual should be the focus of the conversation. This argument is voiced by a mother whose son has ASD.  She uses both kinds of language when talking about her son.  She describes her opinion in her article, “Has Autism” versus “Is Autistic”; A muddled debate.  She states, “I’m far more interested in the substance of what someone says rather than getting hooked up on whether they used “autistic” or “has autism” (2011).  While she displays rejection to both sides of the argument, her main objective is to allow her son a positive experience with his identity and experiences with those around him.

After reading an overview of the central points of both arguments, where do you stand?  While I believe that rhetoric and semantics do have an impact on the world and its attitudes,  I do agree with the logic used by both sides of the debate.  Consider, that the most beneficial point of view to keep in mind could be the person you’re talking with. Ask them how they feel about the subject and what makes them comfortable.  In the end, isn’t the underlying theme of both arguments to keep the individual in mind?


Brown, L. (2011, August 04). The Significance of Semantics: Person-First Language: Why It Matters. Retrieved October 01, 2017, from

Tobin, M. (2011, May 23). Put me first: The importance of person-first language. Retrieved October 01, 2017, from

“Has Autism” versus “Is Autistic”; A muddled debate. (2011, July 26). Retrieved October 01, 2017, from

White Alphabet Dice. (n.d.). Retrieved October 01, 2017, from

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