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The autistic community is begging us to listen. So why aren’t we?

Updated: Aug 26, 2022

Last week I was interviewed on the ASHA Voices podcast alongside Rachel Dorsey, an autistic SLP. Here is the question we were addressing:

How can we build positive images of our autistic children and clients, and help autistic children develop a positive self-concept? It’s not an easy question. But in a world where a large percentage of autistic people attempt suicide, this conversation is a matter of life and death.

Let's first talk about something everyone has an opinion on: Person-first vs identity-first language.

Person-first language was drilled into my head in graduate school. Person-first language is a philosophy that a person is first and foremost, a person. They are not defined by their “disability” (but we should say “difference”). Saying “person with autism” would be an example of person-first language. This compares to identity-first language, in which we would say this is an “autistic person.”

In the past, I made the argument that it was better to use person-first language when communicating with parents who had children with a recent diagnosis. Why? Many parents I meet at this state are still processing or haven’t accepted the diagnosis yet. I felt that person-first language helped a parent to remember that their child was first and foremost that, a child.

But after some extremely enlightening conversations with autistic adults, and reading recent research, I finally understood the significance of identity-first language and why it should be embraced by therapists.

Identity-first language embraces that autistic is an identity that one should take pride in, and a valuable piece of this person that should not be overlooked. And most importantly, the autistic community is begging us to use identity-first language. So why aren't we listening?

“Autism isn’t a tragedy,” Rachel said when we were recording the podcast. And she put a spin on a quote by Barry Prizant. She said, “Being autistic is just another way of being human."

What we need to realize is, we have the power in this situation. We have the ability to change the way people perceive autistic children. And what happens when we talk about autism like it is a tragedy, focusing only on the child’s challenges? People may feel that autism is a tragedy. People may succumb to societal pressure and try to change who their child is, because the child isn’t fitting in with the world’s view of what is “normal.” And eventually, autistic children will grow up to feel like they’re not good enough...they won’t feel loved for who they are.

So here’s a question that is very relevant to us.

Why should we embrace identity-first language? Specifically, us... therapists and parents?

If we use identity-first language when talking about our kids, we can help others build positive images of our clients and children, encourage them to accept the child for who they are, and foster positive self-concept in autistic children.

Our language matters. If we can help people to embrace a child’s identity, and love them and support them in every way, wouldn’t we want to do that?

Rachel is incredible and I can’t wait for the parent and SLP community to hear what she has to say. For now, check out her blog here.

Jessie Ginsburg, M.S., CCC-SLP is a Sensory Integration trained speech-language pathologist, the CEO of Pediatric Therapy Playhouse, and the creator of ASD from the Inside Out.

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