Guest post written by Andrew Arboe
Andrew Arboe is a self-advocate and public speaker with over five years of professional experience in the autism field. He works for FOCUS Center for Autism as a teacher assistant and for Anderson Center for Autism as a consultation training associate. He is also a member of ECHO Autism. He holds an associate degree as a disability specialist and is working towards his Bachelor of Science in Psychology through Charter Oak State College. He presents topics for organizations and does freelance work to support his community.
Don’t expect this blog on language preferences to be cliché, as you may have seen in other autism circles. Since the pandemic, I’ve noticed more divisiveness surrounding language and terminology when discussing autism spectrum disorder. This discord is especially obvious on social media. People see their viewpoint as absolute, and it sometimes comes off as bitterness. This article will explore the topic from my experience as an autistic advocate.
In 2021, I helped create an eBook for The Next Street when they had a driving program for autistic individuals. I was attacked for it because I used first-person language. It was certainly an experience, and not once did they ask if anyone autistic (aka me) made the eBook. That was the first time I noticed this tension and went down the rabbit hole of realizing how I felt about language preferences.
First, I started to investigate the intentions of language choices, like deciding between person-first language and identity-first language. Person-first language intends to highlight the individual first over their disability. Created by the 1983 Denver Principles, which focused on self-advocacy and avoided any language that dehumanizes people, this occurred during the 1980s AIDS movement, as people panicked about the unknown.
To many, Identity-first language embraces the label. Using the identity first encourages the individual to wear the disability on their sleeve in open display. The core of their identity and general motivation is to reclaim the term from others. Various neurodiversity-focused organizations like Autistic Self-Advocacy Network and self-advocacy groups use this language choice. Those with a diagnosis generally prefer these terms because they can be empowering while minimizing stigma.
The identity-first crowd demonstrates disgust and anger when people try to take their autism away by utilizing person-first language. In response, the person-first crowd argues back or remains silent to limit attacks. Upon seeing that both choices have valid reasons, I found my answer. Language choices are never a one-size-fits-all type of solution.
Soon after realizing that, I recognized this language debate does not have to exist on such a large scale. More important is the individual’s preferences above any group or majority. Individuals will always have different takes on autism.
I do not hide from labels and value work achievements and family over language concerns. This personal philosophy is an example of the diversity within the community. The reality is that the autism community is not a monolith.
Considering the reality, I will make one last observation regarding how personal these debates can be. Identity means a lot to people. Considering the history of disability advocacy, it is easy to see why language preferences exist.
I encourage people to take a mindful approach in their advocacy routines. I do it daily in my transportation advocacy, reminding myself that not everyone can drive and that alternative options are often necessary. I also switch my use of these two language styles depending on the context.
In the past, I conducted virtual driving consultations with families. If I noticed a preferred language style, I used those terms when I talked to the individual. In my publications, I switched between the terms on and off. For me, it depends on the situation. At times, I just say what feels natural and go from there.
I want both crowds of the language debates to consider this mindful approach to language because it leads to smoother discussions. We should respect everyone’s choices. The reality of autism can be complex, so the last thing needed is to use energy on something causing more fights than solutions. I would rather better the world in my way.