"Autistic person" considered "least offensive" term, study confirms

Rachel Worsley  |  02/04/2023

A range of terms are used to describe members of the autistic community. Some of these labels tend to be preferred over others, and some of these labels can feel exclusionary and disempowering.

Researchers from La Trobe University found that terms such as “Autistic”, “Person on the Autism Spectrum”, and “Autistic Person” were preferred and considered the least offensive by study participants. These identity-first terms were generally preferred over person-first terms, such as “person with autism”. The study surveyed 198 Australians who had been formally diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

 Participants rated and ranked different terms, indicating which they preferred or found offensive. They were also asked to comment on their responses. In general “Autistic” was the most preferred term and “Person on the Autism Spectrum” was rated as the least offensive. 

The results revealed variations in language preferences though. While “Autism” ranked as the most preferred term, 28.3% of participants ranked it as their least-preferred term. Although respondents largely preferred identity-first language, some expressed a preference for person-first language instead. Some participants also indicated preferences for terms that the study didn’t incorporate. So, while general preferences in terminology were established, it’s also important to recognise the variation in preferences within the autism community and to ask individuals what terms they prefer.

These findings may be key to building “inclusive dialogue” between autistic people and clinicians, family members and friends, researchers, autism organisations, and the community at large. Person-first language remains standard use in many of these settings, promoted, according to the study, as a way to focus “on the identity and humanity of the individual rather than their disability, thereby reducing devaluation of the individual or promotion of stereotypes.”

However, others argue that disability does fundamentally shape a person’s experiences and identity. Identity-first language can acknowledge and celebrate that identity. The neurodiversity movement emphasises that autism is a difference rather than a deficit, and that those differences can be strengths. Several study participants affirmed this view, with one saying “I find using the label autistic helps me to be proud of my identity and embrace my differences. I find it empowering and not as degrading.”

Participants also generally found person-first terms that refer to autism as a “disorder” such as “person with autism spectrum disorder” or “person with autism spectrum condition” as least preferred and most offensive. As one participant commented, “I don’t view my autism as a ‘disorder’. This upsets me. It is just another way of seeing the world.”

The results of this study could hopefully improve interactions autistic people have, particularly with clinicians. The authors point out that “individuals diagnosed with autism are traditionally a marginalised and vulnerable group, it is incumbent upon professionals, and society broadly, to understand their perspective on the language and terms used to describe them. Such dialogue can aid in forming constructive alliances and reduce stigmatisation.”

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