Identity First

You might notice that we’re using identity-first language when referring to autistic people. This is in keeping with the autism self advocacy preference of recognising autism as a neurodiverse way of being in the world, as opposed to a pathology or disorder that requires a ‘cure’. While we recognise that person-first language is used in much of academia and the dialogue around autism spectrum conditions, we have chosen to use the language that is preferred by many autistic people themselves. One of our research members, Dawn-Joy Leong, identifies as autistic, and describes this perspective below…

My name is Dawn-joy. I am Autistic. I am also a researcher and multi-artist. Autism, to me, is a neurological culture, it is the way my mind functions. We are all strongly shaped by how our minds work, just as we are molded by our ethnicity, nationality and culture. Although these may not rigidly encompass every single facet of our personality and character, they are nevertheless important identifications that describe the rich multidimensionality of our beings.

Person-first language is useful to separate the person from an accompanying illness, because the latter is viewed largely as a negative aspect of life, and in some cases, something which society is ashamed of, and which the person does not wish to be identified by. For instance, It is perfectly reasonable not to use the term “cancer person,” but instead, “person with cancer.” However, person-first language becomes insulting and ludicrous when applied to ethnic, cultural and national affiliations. For example, one does not use the term “person with Chinese-ness” but rather simply “Chinese” or “Chinese person,” or “person with Australianism” but “Australian” etc. This is not to say that individual Chinese persons or Australians may not be ashamed of these features of their identities, and perhaps there may yet be the minority who prefer the use of person-first language, but since society would scoff at such an idea, the discussion is a non-entity.

Why, then, is this a contentious subject where Autism is concerned? The vast majority of Autistics have now moved away from person-first terminology to describe Autism. I cringe at descriptions like “person with autism,” but by far the most insulting is “person suffering from autism.” Autism is not a disease. There are indeed challenges faced by any person when trying to live in and adapt to a prevalent culture that is not one’s own. However, there are also great rewards. Similarly, although there are many challenges inherent in Autism where it comes to coping with life within a social-neurocultural domain that is not innately designed to suit the Autistic functioning, there are also many wonderful aspects to being Autistic.

Autistic persons are increasingly no longer ashamed of Autism. An eclectic existence is not the same as a disease. Autistics, like myself, strongly feel that it is time the world pays some heed to our voices, especially where it comes to describing who we are. I am Autistic. I am not a person-with-autism. Thank you for listening, and thank you for joining me in this journey of embracing my embodiment! – by Dawn-joy Leong 2016

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