Hands in a heart shape holding an infinity rainbox. Underneath the words Sandra Bell ND Coach
#22 Language Matters

·        The language used sets up how we view something

·        Identify-first language is affirming 

·        Best to use identity-first unless requested otherwise

The language used sets up how we view something

When we use language like Autism Spectrum Disorder, ASD, has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or has ADHD, we stigmatise and imply that natural parts of neurodiversity are a “disorder”, or “wrong” or needing to be “fixed”.

Such language also leads to falsely held beliefs, like autism is a spectrum with not so autistic on one end and really autistic on the other. The attention deficit part of ADHD can also falsely imply that ADHDers have a deficit of attention when it is quite the opposite, it is an abundance of attention that can at times be unfocused. This led Drs. Hallowell and Ratey to coin a new term in their book ADHD 2.0 of VAST, which stands for Variable Attention Stimulus Trait as a way to more accurately represent this neurotype without any stigmatisation.

Identity-first language is affirming

When surveyed, usually, most of the neurodivergent population prefer to use identify-first language such as autistic, an ADHDer (the community is still working on a better word), dyslexic etc. It does make me wonder if those who prefer to use person-first language, such as has autism, are actually only preferring this because of internalised ableism.

The concept of person-first can be argued to put the person at the centre and their difference as a non-defining part. I understand for an actual disease or disorder that you wouldn’t want identity-first – if I had diabetes I would want to be described as a person with diabetes not a diabetic as I would want to be seen as a person first, and it would imply that it would be better to not have diabetes, which would certainly be the case.

But don’t get me wrong, there is no judgement from me, certainly as I started on this journey many years ago I used ASD and described my children as having autism. I didn’t know any better, and for most of us we have come to the realisation that we, or our children are neurodivergent through the medical lens of being diagnosed using criteria that is based on being deficient compared to neurotypicals. It’s therefore not surprising, that at least at the beginning of our journey, we use terms that imply this ableistic viewpoint of our neurotypes.

Best to use identity-first unless requested otherwise

Given the ableistic connotations of person-first language, and their association with stigmatising what is a natural part of neurodiversity; I believe it is best to use identity-first language unless the individual requests otherwise. And by the individual, I don’t mean a well-intentioned parent or carer or teacher, I mean the person themselves – they deserve that level of consideration.

For me, it always makes me cringe and question the intentions of a person who uses person-first language to refer to a neurodivergence of an individual. Are they trying to imply neurodivergence should be stigmatised and pitied, or do they just not know any better? It’s often hard to tell.

What are your thoughts on identity-first language for neurodivergencies?

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