That Autistic Kid: The Importance of People First Language

Occasionally I watch TV of questionable value. It happens when too much PBS or Ken Burn’s documentaries have me fearing I’ve prematurely aged by thirty years. While watching The Voice the other night, I heard a contestant make the statement, “I work with autistic kids.”

Hmmm, do you?

Then you really should know better than to refer to your students as “autistic kids.”  Respecting the different abilities of others requires the recognition that, first and foremost, they are human beings. Special needs or diagnosis are secondary to that fact. People first language is a big step towards creating a culture where everyone is accepted.

Critics claim over-sensitivity or the dangers of rigid political correctness that can cause everyone to be tentative but consider all of the personality traits or mental faculties that you have but wouldn’t want to be your defining quality.

List 10 characteristics about yourself that have a negative connotation. I’ll start:

  • Irrational
  • Indecisive
  • Argumentative
  • Critical

Well, you get the idea…

By making a list of “negative characteristics”, I’m not implying that special needs are a bad thing. I don’t think that and would like to believe that the rest of the world does not either, but the reality is much different.  The goal of this post is to work to change those pervasive ideas.

Go back to your list. Even if you weren’t able to come up with 10 things, if you listed more than one, it is a clear example of the layers that we carry. We are many things, so characterizing a person by a single element, like a special need, is narrow-minded, However, while putting these labels on people is negligent, each person should be defined. By their preferences, morals, opinions, views – defined not judged. We are who we are because of these things and should accept that reality.

A sad, secondary commentary on people first language is when it’s disregarded, because someone sees the need as a means of special treatment. A trendy diagnosis – like autism – can be used to create relevancy. Differences should be celebrated, but these people are doing themselves and their children a disservice in promoting the need. They are discriminating against their child as a multi-faceted person. By doing so, they are giving permission to other people to do the same. Very quickly “my amazing, special autistic child” becomes “the arm-flapping kid” or “that girls who counts all the time.” Children, especially, should be given the opportunity to define their own self beyond their special need.

For more information about the use of people-first language, check out the National Inclusion Project.

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5 thoughts on “That Autistic Kid: The Importance of People First Language

  1. Using discriminatory language not only attempts to define people by single characteristics, but it also feeds stereotypes, as if all people with autism behave in a particular way. Humans naturally categorize and label everything, but that does not justify the assumption that you know exactly what autism is and what it means to be diagnosed with it.

    • I think that it is those natural tendencies to categorize that are a root cause of discrimination and lack of people first language. As I mentioned, everyone needs to be defined by the many facets of their personality, because it makes us individuals. No two people’s definitions are the same. That’s the fun of it all!

  2. Pingback: Responsible Reporting: The Importance of People First Language | bird on a wire

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