Friday, January 20, 2012

From Blog Posts to Bills, Student Advocates for Individuals with Autism

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- For better or for worse, Lydia Brown's identity has been shaped in large part by her autism.
"Autism affects every aspect of my life," she said. "I would completely not be me if I were not autistic."
Drawing on her experiences, Brown (COL '15) wrote and submitted two bills,  one before the House of Representatives and one in the Senate in Massachusetts, proposing a mandatory training program about autism for law enforcement and correction officers in the state. The training would focus on how to recognize and communicate with autistic people in high-tension situations.


  1. Hi, I am the mentioned individual. I prefer to be identified as Autistic, as do the majority of adults and youth on the spectrum, rather than as people with autism. You may read more about that here, at my blog, if you like.

  2. Hi Lydia, thank you for raising this issue. I was told a number of years ago to avoid labels and to use people-first language. I appreciate your bring this to our attention and hope you can explain to our followers why you prefer be identified as "autistic." Thanks and good luck, Lynn

  3. The majority of Autistic adults and youth prefer not to use people-first language. Most people whom I know, as well as myself, defer to the following general rules:

    1.) When describing people in general terms or as a group of people, use the language preferred by the majority of the people being described. (Ex. People with bipolar disorder sometimes share characteristics with Autistic people.)

    2.) When describing a specific person whose preference is not known, defer to the language preferred by the majority of the people being described. (Ex. Anders Robertsson is a Deaf man from Los Angeles, and his partner, Ruth Goldberg, is a woman with schizophrenia.)

    3.) When describing a specific person whose preference is known to be not aligned with that of the majority, use the language preferred by that individual. (Ex. Amanda Wood Vivian, a woman with autism, writes excellent articles about autism and disability.)

    4.) When describing disability in general, defer to your own language preference (i.e. disabled person versus person with a disability) except if describing specific groups of people, the majority of whom have a preference differing from your own. (This one is murkier, and some people whom I know, regardless of specific disability, prefer to identify as disabled or Disabled, whereas others prefer to identify as people with disabilities.)

    To my knowledge, the majority of people in the Autistic, Turner's, Blind, and Deaf communities prefer to use language placing the disability as an adjective (sometimes capitalized like another proper adjective might be), while the majority of people in nearly every other disability community (i.e. bipolar disorder, ADD, schizophrenia, Down Syndrome, etcetera) prefer to use person-first language, such as person with X or person who has X. The word "people" in this paragraph means the people who are being described, as opposed to their parents, other family members, friends, therapists, or researchers who do not have disabilities.

    One recurring theme in discussions about language as part of identity politics is that of "reclaiming" a term or phrase. While some people inside and outside the community have seen the word Hispanic as somewhat offensive, because it necessitates describing Spanish conquest of much of Latin America, I have noticed a resurgence in people who can be described this way in reclaiming the word Hispanic to describe themselves, whether or not they also use the word Latino(a). Some Autistic people whom I know feel the same way about the word Autistic, and prefer to use this description as opposed to person first language because it is an act of empowerment -- of taking language that might historically have been considered somewhat pejorative or highly stigmatized and taking ownership of that term, to remove its use from those who used it harmfully.

    I prefer to be identified as Autistic for the same reason that I also identify as Asian, American, Progressive Liberal, and Christian. They are labels of identity. None of them replaces who I am, but all of them are inherently a part of who I am, and there is no clear way to say where one part begins and another ends. All affect my beliefs and actions and behavior. Being Christian doesn't make an inherently better or worse person than an Atheist or a Muslim or a Ba'hai. Being American doesn't make me an inherently better or worse person than a Korean or a Pakistani or a Nigerian. Being Autistic, then, does not make me an inherently better or worse person than a non-Autistic. Adjectives describe nouns, and proper adjectives become proper nouns. That's how grammar works when describing things, so it is far more accurate and respectful to call me Autistic than to call me a person with autism -- or, for example, a person with Asianness or a person with Christianness.

    There is far more material at the link that I provided, however, and I will refer your readers there for the rest of my reasoning as well as further resources.