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Doing What’s Right for You When it Comes to Identity-First and Person-First Language

By Christine Denise

Autism Mom and Contributing Writer for As You Are, a virtual clinic dramatically increasing access to early autism diagnostic services through the use of exclusively telehealth appointments


Right answers and wrong answers.

In my experience along this autism journey, I’m learning more and more that there are no right or wrong answers.

There are only answers that are right for you and your family.


Learning On The Job

For others in the special needs community, the answers that are right for your family might not be the right answers for others.

And that can lead to some judgment – and an opportunity to grow for you and for others.

I learned this recently while interviewing a fellow mother of a child with autism for my job as a reporter.

She described her son to me as a high functioning special needs child. She specifically asked that I describe him in those words and in that order. He was the victim of a heinous crime that happened when he was out of her sight for less than three minutes.

So, I honored her wishes.


Identity-First and Person-First Language

She believed describing him in those words would help the public understand more about how he came to be victimized.

While many believe in identity-first language, many also believe in person-first language. . Instead of describing someone with special needs by leading with their special need, it may help people see them as a child, or a girl, a boy, a person.  As this article in the National Institutes of Health states, it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.

As soon as my story published, I heard from several people. One was a teacher who said she works with children with special needs. She scolded me for describing the child in this story without using person-first language.

Another woman who said she has a child with autism scolded me for using the words, “high-functioning,” saying attaching labels to people in the autism community can be harmful.

I thanked both women for the time they took to respond and for sharing their thoughts.  

For them, those are their right answers.

And who am I to tell them they’re wrong?


Doing What’s Right for You

I simply told them that this is the language the child’s mother preferred to use to describe him to the world. And I told them I, too, have a child with autism. I told them my philosophy about right and wrong answers in this world.

And how this description is, for this mother, her right answer.

They wrote back to me, thanked me for my time and response.

And we all walked away from the situation respecting what’s right for each other might not be right for all of us, and that’s okay.


Do you have questions about your child’s development? The team at As You Are provides useful autism screening and diagnostic evaluations for kids 16 months to 10 years old via telehealth appointments.

Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. This is a sponsored blog post, but all opinions are my own.

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