Grammar

Should You Use ‘Autistic’ or ‘With Autism’ to Describe Children?

There is disagreement over whether to use autistic or with autism when talking about people affected by Autistic Spectrum Disorder.

Autistic or With Autism? Is one of the options attached to people more offensive than the other or do they accomplish the same thing?

It depends on whom you ask.

For some, describing a child as “an autistic child” carries a meaning the speaker may never have intended. Others question why the phrasing “a child with autism” is somehow better.

My go-to source for matters like this is the AP Style Book, an annual publication from the Associated Press for journalists. AP Style states that autism is acceptable as “an umbrella term for a group of developmental disorders.” But when it comes to using the word as an adjective, autistic, AP offers no guidance.

The National Center on Disability and Journalism advises the writer should ask how the person (or their family) wants them to be addressed since there is disagreement.

But why is there disagreement?

Part of the battle centers on what is referred to as “person-first language.” By using a term like “autistic child,” some feel you’re literally putting the disorder ahead of (or suggesting it’s more important than) the child.

The policy at Parents.com is to use person-first language. But the mother of a child who has autism writes that even person-first language isn’t perfect:

By using person-first language and saying “my son with autism” in conversation, I’m calling his autism a disease, like cancer or diabetes. Wrapped up in that is the notion that a disease needs a cure, that my child needs “fixing.”

Meanwhile, Jim Winter wrote a piece for Healthline back in 2017 about his daughter, who he describes as his “autistic daughter.”

He prefers “identity-first language.” As you’ve surely guessed, this is the opposite of person-first language. Winter explains it this way:

The idea here is that autism is your child’s neurological identity. It can’t be changed. It’s a part of them. Acceptance of the identity is acceptance of the child.

Both notions make sense in their own way.

But we’re left with an unsatisfactory answer.

That answer is that there’s no one answer that will work for everyone. Officially, there’s no total agreement on which is “better.” That, of course, would make life far too easy.

For someone who isn’t personally affected, it may seem like a petty thing to argue about. For someone who is personally affected, the controversy may be a bit too personal.

Honestly, I think there’s a good deal of overthinking lurking in this debate.

Does the average person, upon hearing of “an autistic child” think there’s some dark effort to put the child “behind” the condition? Does the average person, upon hearing of “a child with autism” equate autism with cancer or diabetes?

I have my doubts.

But even if you take the advice of asking the person to whom you refer, you may well offend someone else who disagrees with the use of person-first or identity-first language.

They may have their own personal reasons. Just as the family whom you asked has theirs.

You won’t please everyone. And this is one of those cases where a writer simply must live with that.

Does one sound more appropriate to you?

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 28 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.