Words Matter

When talking and writing about autism spectrum disorder, preference-first language is key.
Catalight Marketing and Communications
September 14, 2023

Language is the primary tool we use to understand and relate to each other. Using inclusive language to refer to people in communities different from our own, reflects our respect for and understanding of that community. A few words can mean the difference between a compliment and an insult, sympathy and disdain, or clarity and confusion.

The autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and intellectual and development disability (IDD) communities are no different. Using inclusive language is crucial when talking and writing about ASD and IDDs. Clinicians, caregivers and allies need to know how to address the people they care for, and the public should show respect for these communities by avoiding potentially alienating language.

Two Approaches to Identity in Language

Person-first language–“a person with autism”–leans on the idea that a person is not defined by a disorder. Person-first language is often used and preferred in clinical settings. Many advocacy organizations, parents and people with autism also favor this approach (DeVault). Autistic adults and people diagnosed with autism later in life are also more likely to prefer person-first terminology, according to Doreen Samelson, EdD, MSCP, Chief Clinical Officer at Catalight.

Identity-first language–”autistic person”–is the preference for the majority, according to research.[1] It’s popular for many reasons, as it represents acceptance of the autistic person’s identity, which is sometimes a personal, hard-fought acknowledgement.[2] Identity-first language has also risen in prominence as ASD receives more attention in the media. This visibility can help autistic people discover ASD actually is a core part of who they are. In this case, using identity-first language can be a crucial part of how someone builds their overall identity.

But some parents struggle with identity-first language if they see their child’s autism as separate from their child. For parents of children with profound autism, identity-first language may feel minimizing to their child’s identity, as though the manifestation of their autism is primarily who they are.

Ultimately, as with any community, a common identity creates kinship, acceptance and belonging between autistic people. While the diversity within the community is vast, recognizing the shared experiences of autism brings people together and helps create a sense of pride in those experiences. This is why many adopt identity-first language as a tool to showcase that pride.


Not clear on what terminology to use? Rather than assume, simply ask. There is no one rule for what is considered appropriate.

Some people with autism or other IDDs don’t have the language skills to understand the nuances between identity-first and person-first terminology; when this is the case, asking caregivers is appropriate. The ASD and IDD community contains a diverse spectrum of identities. The only way to be sure of how someone would like to be addressed is to ask them.

What About Neurodiversity?

The term has been around for about twenty-five years and was coined by a sociologist, Judy Singer. Singer wanted to change the conversation about disabilities from the medical model–a thing that needs to be fixed or cured, to a social model acknowledging disabled people are more impaired by cultural and societal barriers, such as inaccessibility and ableism, than by their actual disability.

Harvard Health Publishing defines neurodiversity as “the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways; there is no one ‘right’ way of thinking.” The term has been widely adopted among people with IDDs who have lower support needs, such as some people with autism or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

But the popular term should be used carefully. It glosses over the day-to-day realities of life for people with profound autism or other severe IDDs, and that of their families. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly a third of people with ASD have profound autism.[3] To describe these individuals as part of a great spectrum of neurodiversity overlooks the fact many will require lifelong, intensive support.

Looking Ahead

When talking and writing about autism spectrum disorder, preference has to be our priority. As the ASD and IDD community encompasses a diverse spectrum of identities and people with varying levels of support requirements, it is essential to recognize language describing autism and IDDs is not one-size-fits-all.


[1] What is neurodiversity?

[2] ‘Autistic person’ and ‘person with autism’ are not one and the same

[3] The Prevalence and Characteristics of Children With Profound Autism


About Catalight

Catalight breaks down barriers and biases to create a more equitable world so people with developmental disabilities can choose their path. Catalight provides access to innovative, individualized care services, clinical research and advocacy — all powered by intelligent Xolv Technology Solutions. Through the work of affiliate partners, Easterseals Hawaii and Easterseals Northern California, Catalight and its family of companies support people with developmental disabilities and their families to support them across their care journey.

The Catalight family of companies is one of the largest behavioral health networks in the nation with more than 8,000 practitioners serving 14,000 clients and families every day. Backed by more than a decade of experience and a multidisciplinary team of clinicians, we are reimagining the way people with developmental disabilities and their families experience healthcare. Catalight’s goal is to ensure that individuals and families receive timely access to evidence-based treatment, including naturalistic developmental and language-based services, applied behavior analysis, occupational therapy and speech therapy.

Next Up:

What’s in a Name? The History of Autism Spectrum Disorder

What’s in a Name? The History of Autism Spectrum Disorder

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), autism spectrum disorder is the fastest-growing developmental disability in the U.S. It’s also one of the most talked about in the media and by families across the country. But where did the term...

read more
Virtual Support, Real Progress

Virtual Support, Real Progress

Telehealth has gone through a major transformation since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Once narrowly used, it was widely adopted during the lockdowns of 2020. Many families turned to telehealth to continue essential care for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and...

read more