While I don’t speak for everyone, the majority of the autistic community do prefer “is autistic”, “are autistic”, which is called Identity first language (IFL). This is based on the social model of disability, seeing that there isn’t something ‘wrong’ with the person, but they are in fact disabled by society’s barriers and failures to accommodate that person’s differences. ‘Autistic’ is preferred because IFL reflects how autism is an integral part of our identity, you can’t separate it from us. If you took away our autism then we wouldn’t be us. The autism symbol associated with this perspective is either a rainbow infinity symbol (pro-neurodiversity in general) or the gold infinity symbol (specific to autism).
This goes onto the next part, where many do not support the use of ‘have autism’, which is Person first language (PFL). This stems from the medical model of disability, seeing disability as something that should be changed, fixed or cured and the responsibility is down to that person to navigate society – failing to acknowledge how society should accommodate every kind of person instead. With FPL it’s seen as something separate to the person, like it’s something we have, something that can be taken away from the person. However autism isn’t like this, it cannot be ‘had’, we don’t carry it around like an accessory. The common symbol used by people who think of autism like this is the puzzle piece, which many of us strongly reject.
However, some autistic people do still identify with PFL, and we have to respect that as we should not tell other autistic people how to feel about themselves or how to identify.
For those of us who identify with IFL, being autistic makes us everything that we are, there isn’t any deficit, it’s just another way for humans to exist! It’s nothing to be ashamed of, and if anything we should be proud to be different!
If you’re curious about how we use this language, or where it began, its a great idea to check out the hashtag on most social medias such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Tiktok, with “#ActuallyAutistic”. This represents a pro-neurodiversity movement online, where we create and share content of radical acceptance for different kinds of brains (neurodiversity) and tell society loud and proud that we are not puzzles to be fixed or solved – we are not broken or a deficit!
What should I do, how can I be best respectful?
Everyone is different, whilst it’s safer to assume the person uses ‘is autistic’ rather than ‘have autism’, if they wish to disclose their autism, then it’s a potentially good idea to ask them which language they prefer. You’re at much less risk of harm and causing offence if you use ‘autistic’ than you would be using ‘have autism’, as no negative connotations come with ‘autistic’ like ‘have autism’ do. Or, you could ask the person how do they feel most comfortable being addressed.
Person first language and its negative connotations:
Where would you see ‘have autism’ used commonly?
It tends to be used mostly by people in the medical profession, which is partly the problem, as the medical profession widely uses the medical model of disability, even when it comes to autism (sees us as full of deficits just because we do things differently). So, this use of language comes with ableist connotations. This language is also used by Autism Speaks, which is recognised to autistic adults as an autistic hate group – they believe in ‘curing autism’, there are no autistic members of their organisation to have their say, and they believe in using a harmful therapy for children, called Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) therapy. Many of us liken this to training a child like you would train a dog – it’s inhumane and causes great suffering to the children and leads to trauma and PTSD.
Autism Speaks also popularised the use of the blue puzzle piece as the autism symbol. However this also holds ableist connotations not only because it is strongly derived from the idea that autism is a puzzle to be solved, or an autistic person is not whole, but these are also ideas that Autism Speaks promote to wider society.
However, we aren’t puzzles. Not unless you tear us into pieces.