I have a 5-year-old friend named Harry. He loves numbers, marble runs, and snap circuits. He reads portions of the encyclopedia to family and friends, and he delights in sharing this knowledge. He is Autistic.
Harry does not have autism. He is not a person with autism. He is Autistic.
When I first decided to write about autism, I just wanted to show everyone what Harry’s world was like. I wanted people to know what an awesome boy he is, and I wanted people to see his mom as an advocate to be modeled.
And I got it all wrong. I was looking at writing this post like Harry had autism. It was innocent. It was well-intentioned. But it was wrong.
Of course Harry is awesome. He’s just as wonderful as every other 5-year-old. And just as unique.
Of course Harry’s mom is an amazing advocate. I think there is a huge population of mama bears out there that will step in to advocate for their child about a number of things.
And yes, Harry has gifts and struggles that I will never experience or fully understand because his reality is not mine. He does not see the world the same way that I do, nor does he have the same struggles that I have. Which means that autism is simply another part of being human. As Harry’s mom conveyed to me, autism is not a disease or a condition that needs to be cured; it is simply a neurodiverse way to be human.
So, what’s the big deal about saying Harry has autism vs. saying he is autistic? According to Autistic Self Advocacy Network, it has to do with who came up with person-first language and what that language implies. Person-first language simply means that the “person” should come first before any other identifiers. If you use person-first language, you would say he is a person with autism. Advocates and professionals use this terminology in an attempt to value the person instead of emphasizing a condition.
Autistic self-advocates, however, say autism is inherently part of who they are, and should not be verbally separated from their identity. In order to value his/her identity as an Autistic person, self-advocates refer to themselves as Autistic. This is the same as anyone who identifies themselves as “Christian,” “Muslim,” “Asian,” etc.
Right now, Harry is 5. He doesn’t care about person-first language or how people view his identity. He just wants to find the next best marble run and play with his friends. But language matters. As a writer, I know the power of words. It can build bridges to unite humanity, or it can build walls and create division.
Choose your words wisely.
Please note that some Autistic adults prefer to be referred to differently, and that should be respected. For more information on autism and/or person-first language, go to Autistic Self Advocacy Network.