Putting Education Reform To The Test

Feedback Loop: Autistic Student, Or Student With Autism?

BLW Photography / Flickr

Our story about Henry Frost’s efforts to enroll in his neighborhood school also sparked a discussion about language.

Dean McIntosh criticized our describing Frost as a “student with autism.”

The debate is over what’s known as “people first” language — that is emphasizing the person over the diagnosis. But McIntosh says you can’t separate autism from the person:

The entire adult autistic community has been saying in one loud voice that “…with autism” is not acceptable. Myself and Lydia Brown are just two examples of autistic adults who write about why. But one of the reasons is that talking about an essential component of a person as if it is a separate thing is not acceptable. You do not say “person with blackness” or “person with Asianness”. Yet it is okay to use such racist or neuro-ist language against the autistic in your eyes. It is not in ours. Please stop.

Lydia Brown wrote about the debate for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. She prefers identity-first language — calling her blog Autistic Hoya. Brown gathered a host of opinions on the topic.

One common thought we saw was that people-first language makes those using it feel enlightened or better about themselves, and has nothing to do with to whom the language refers.

Lost and Tired blogger Rob Gorski favors using Autistic to describe his three sons. Gorski feels people-first language makes a false implication:

Doesn’t the “child first” language kinda make it seem like their is something wrong with being Autistic? If you focus so much on putting the child before the disorder, when in fact, the disorder is part of who they are. Doesn’t that send the wrong message. Shouldn’t we be embracing our children for who they are (Autism and all) and not try to separate out the parts we are uncomfortable with? Just a thought…..

The Arc of Anchorage sees things differently and offers this advice to reporters:

“People first language” promotes the idea that people who experience disabilities are people first, and their disability, to the extent it is relevant, should come second. For example, a “person who experiences autism” or a “person with autism,” instead of an “autistic.”

Words affect the way people think. They can reinforce outdated stereotypes or encourage respect through accurate, non-judgmental descriptions. As members of the fourth estate, you can make a difference.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for being politically correct so long as it’s serving a proper purpose. These include proper formalities, curbing racism and so on.

However, for the sake of knit picking your own interpretation of what you think someone else may or may not be inadvertently implying on some other level of perception… is this really what we need to spend our time and energy on?

Again, don’t get me wrong, I am not dismissing the idea of putting the person first, never have, never will.. but only in a very real, active, sense.

We’ve been asking what StateImpact Florida readers think since we published our story Wednesday. Keep sending us your thoughts.

UPDATE — Temple Grandin: “I get concerned when young kids come up to me and all they want to talk about is ‘their autism.’ I would rather talk about their interest in animals, science, or history. They are becoming their label.”

Reader reaction is an important part of building StateImpact Florida’s education coverage. Feedback Loop will be a regular feature highlighting your questions, criticisms and comments.


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