Should I Say “Person With Autism” Or “Autistic Person”?

You may have heard different answers concerning the correct way to refer to people within the autistic community. There is discussion around whether the term “person with autism” or “autistic person” is more appropriate. The ways that we refer to people are important because even if the changes in word choice seem small, there are different meanings and connotations that come along with our word choices. These meanings matter and can affect the way that people are perceived.

When learning about language preferences around identity, we encourage an open mind and a willingness to learn more!

Language choices around autism

There has been debate about whether using person-first language or identity-first language is more appropriate among the autistic community. 

Person-first language would be saying “person with autism” rather than “autistic person.” The idea is to prioritize the humanity of the individual. This is a well-intended approach, and some individuals do prefer it. However, it isn’t as inclusive as you may think!

Many advocates within the autistic community have a strong preference for identity-first language and would prefer to be referred to as an “autistic person.” Some people see person-first language as ignoring the importance of autism within an autistic person’s life. It may give the impression that an autistic person is separate from their autism, as if behind the autism is a neurotypical person, which is of course not the case. 

Person-first language is considered more politically correct in many other situations – such as when a person has an illness. For example, in many situations it is more appropriate to say “person with cancer” rather than “cancer patient.” But this is very different from referring to an autistic person. Autism is not an illness and is often considered to be embedded in an individual’s identity, which is not necessarily the case for someone who has experienced an identity outside of an illness or other condition.

Person-first or identity-first?

The short answer is that there is no one-size-fits-all phrasing. Autistic individuals and caretakers can best determine the right language choices for their own situation. Rather than defaulting to a person-first or identity-first approach, we can take an individualized approach. People who aren’t part of the autistic community may unknowingly impose the terms that they feel are appropriate. So remember that listening to an autistic person’s preferences is always the more respectful option. This will enable you to refer to the person in the way that is most comfortable or empowering to them.

While there is a discussion about identity-first or person-first language, there is no question that certain words are inappropriate. It is offensive to use “autistic” as a noun (i.e. referring to someone as “an autistic”). Words like “retarded” or “slow” are never politically correct. Additionally, referring to someone as a person who “suffers from autism” is not respectful.

It’s important to remember that you may not even need to use terms surrounding autism often. Usually, the polite and appropriate way to refer to someone is by their name. For example, on a school board, there certainly could be situations where members would refer to “autistic students” in general, but they wouldn’t refer to a child as “the autistic child” and would instead simply refer to them by their name.


We are all human. Each person is unique, and all deserve dignity and respect. We can all take an individualized approach to language around identity. And, we can respect that not everyone’s preferences will be the same. There isn’t one wording around autistic identity that works for everyone. And that’s okay! If you aren’t sure of the correct terms to use, politely ask what terminology someone prefers. An individualized approach helps ensure that people feel respected and correctly represented.

Aly Castle

Aly is HappyNeuron Pro’s Content Specialist. She is passionate about mental health and well-being and loves utilizing her design background to share important cognitive information clearly and understandably.

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