I’m not talking about one of my son’s teachers (Dan, 18, high school senior, autism), although it could apply to any one of them. I’m talking about Lydia, an autistic college student I met on Wednesday, who taught ME something.
Lydia is amazing. She is a sophomore at Georgetown University, a double-major in Arabic and Psychology, and interning at a DC autism advocacy organization. When introduced to Jim and me as a “person with autism,” Lydia immediately corrected her with “an autistic person, please.” When we asked her about the distinction, she was off and running, talking a mile a minute.
Apparently there are 2 theories of self-identification in the autism community: person-first and identity-first language. You can read her whole article about it here if you are interested. I think her main idea is succinctly stated in this passage:
When we say “person with autism,” we say that it is unfortunate and an accident that a person is Autistic. We affirm that the person has value and worth, and that autism is entirely separate from what gives him or her value and worth. In fact, we are saying that autism is detrimental to value and worth as a person, which is why we separate the condition with the word “with” or “has.” Ultimately, what we are saying when we say “person with autism” is that the person would be better off if not Autistic, and that it would have been better if he or she had been born typical. We suppress the individual’s identity as an Autistic person because we are saying that autism is something inherently bad like a disease.
Yet, when we say “Autistic person,” we recognize, affirm, and validate an individual’s identity as an Autistic person. We recognize the value and worth of that individual as an Autistic person — that being Autistic is not a condition absolutely irreconcilable with regarding people as inherently valuable and worth something. We affirm the individual’s potential to grow and mature, to overcome challenges and disability, and to live a meaningful life as an Autistic. Ultimately, we are accepting that the individual is different from non-Autistic people–and that that’s not a tragedy, and we are showing that we are not afraid or ashamed to recognize that difference.
I liked when she told us “the only crime you can commit is to correct how an autistic person self-identifies. I’ve had people correct ME when I refer to myself as an autistic person!”
So I asked, “Given how you feel about the language distinction, how do you feel about autism being classified as a disability?” “Oh,” she said, “disability doesn’t occur in nature, creatures are what they are. Disability is a social construct, a term we use to describe people outside the bell curve, and autistics are outside the bell curve, so it’s fine with me.” Wow.
You go, girl!
~ Danz mom, Peggy