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  • Sarah Nannery

What’s with “Identity First” or “Person First” Language?

Ok so it’s taken me a while to feel like I can say anything authoritative on this subject. And remember - I’m just one person.

But since I first started researching autism, I‘ve run into a lot of debate in various circles about whether it’s better to use “person-first” or “identity-first“ language.

Let me break this down a bit.

Person-first language is putting the person before the label. Like “person with cancer” or “person with autism.”

Identity-first language is putting the descriptor first. Like “Jewish person” or “autistic person.”

The argument for person-first language is that it values the person over the descriptor. We wouldn’t say “cancerous person,” because cancer is not something that a person would want to identify with or be defined by having. But we do say “Jewish person,” as opposed to “person with Jewishness” because being Jewish is not a negative thing, and is something that a person would want to identify with - something they might be proud of, a key part of their identity.

The argument for identity-first language is that by relegating autism to second place, it automatically implies that autism is a bad thing, like cancer. Something that no-one would want to identify with, or be proud of.

But autism is not a terminal disease. It is a trait - or a collection of traits - that a person is born with, and which help define their personality, way of thinking, and - yes - identity. It can be devastating for some people, this is true. But it can also be liberating for others. It is - in many ways - an integral and valued part of many peoples’ identity, depending on the person.

So using person first language, for someone who considers autism to be a core part of their identity, can be offensive. I don't think of my autism as if it is something I would rather not have, like cancer, or something that is separate from me as a person. I'm Jewish. I don't "have Jewishness." I'm autistic. I don't "have autism."

Advocating for person-first language comes from a time when “autism” was a dirty word, and "being autistic" was something to be feared and "cured."

And perhaps, in some circles, it might still be seen that way.

I get it. We’re different.

As children, we might have been more difficult than other children. Parents want the best for their children, and being different from the “norm” usually means extra strife, struggle, and challenge in life - things that a parent does not want their child to have to endure.

But my autism is a part of me, just like my brown hair or my patience. It's a part of me that I love sometimes and hate sometimes - again just like my hair (bad hair days, anyone?) or the fact that I can sometimes be overly patient, to the point of sacrificing efficiency or forward motion. It has good and bad. It's not something I want to cure, any more than I want to cure myself of any other born trait.

So all this to say - whether or not a person would prefer to use identity first or person first language will depend on that person, and how they perceive their autism.

You can ask them. Or, you can listen to how they refer to themselves, and follow their lead.

But don't correct the way they talk about themselves ("Oh, don't say you're autistic, that's putting the disability before your humanity - say you have autism instead"), and don't assume that one way is better than the other. Some people will want to use person-first language because they do want to be seen as separate from autism. Some will want to use identity-first language because they see autism as integral to their identity. Some will not care either way.

Social service organizations that work with autistic people need to do a better job of understanding this, and educating people on BOTH usages, rather than advocating solely for person-first language.

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