“Kieshia is a person with autism.” “Kieshia is an autistic person.”

Which is correct? Does it matter? The answer is yes, it does matter. The words and language we use hold power. They shape how we perceive ourselves and others. They influence our thoughts, beliefs, and actions. So, then which is correct? Is Kieshia a person with autism or is Kieshia an autistic person? The answer is - it depends.

Person-first language (PFL) tells us to say “a person with autism” because it places the person before the disability. The medical model of disability typically uses PFL, emphasizing the person over their disability (Flowers et al., 2023). Proponents of PFL argue it promotes inclusivity and reduces the stigma associated with disability. However, others argue it perpetuates the stigma as it may imply that a person can be separated or “cured” from their disability or that having a disability is inherently negative (Wooldridge, 2023; Ryf, 2023).

Alternatively, identity-first language (IFL) tells us to say “autistic person” because it acknowledges that a disability is a part of a person’s identity and not something that can or should be separate. It is founded on the social model of disability which suggests societal barriers and discrimination are the primary factors that disable a person, not the disability itself. Disability is viewed as a neutral or positive trait in the social model of disability (Flowers et al., 2023). Proponents argue the use of identify-first language promotes acceptance of disabilities, fosters a sense of community, and challenges the societal construct that disability is inherently negative. However, others argue IFL overly emphasizes disability which can reinforce negative stereotypes and overshadows other aspects of the person’s identity. (Wooldridge, 2023; Ryf, 2023).

So, which terminology should you use?

Several studies have found PFL is often preferred by professionals. The preference of PFL vs IFL was more variable amongst different disability communities, self-advocates, family members and disability advocates; however, a preference toward IFL was seen more often.  Lei et al. (2021) surveyed 443 professionals and found 21% preferred “on the autism spectrum”, 20% preferred “person with autism” and 30% expressed no preference. Whereas 54% of self-advocates preferred the IFL term “autistic.” Taboas et al. (2022) surveyed 728 U.S. autistic adults; 87% of autistic adults surveyed preferred IFL. When asked to choose the preferred term used to describe themselves, 64.1% chose “I am autistic” and 13.1% chose “I have autism”, both IFL terms. This study found professionals preferred PFL terms.

Given the variability in findings, it’s best practice to never assume - ask each person how they would like to be described. If referencing a specific disability community, use the language most often used within that community.  As language, personal beliefs, and societal values are ever evolving; it is important that we always listen, be respectful, flexible, and inclusive.


Flowers, J., Dawes, J., McCleary, D. F., & Marzolf, H. (2023). Words matter: Language preferences in a sample of autistic adults. Neurodiversity1. https://doi.org/10.1177/27546330231216548

Lei, J., Jones, L., & Brosnan, M. (2021). Exploring an e-learning community’s response to the language and terminology use in autism from two massive open online courses on autism education and technology use. Autism25(5), 136236132098796. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361320987963

Ryf, J. (2023, April 13). Identity-First Language vs. People-First Language. Disability Rights Texas. https://disabilityrightstx.org/en/2023/04/13/identity-first-language-vs-people-first-language/

Taboas, A., Doepke, K., & Zimmerman, C. (2022). Short report: Preferences for identity-first versus person-first language in a US sample of autism stakeholders. Autism27(2), 136236132211308. https://doi.org/10.1177/13623613221130845

Wooldridge, S. (2023, April 12). Writing Respectfully: Person-First and Identity-First Language. National Institutes of Health (NIH). https://www.nih.gov/about-nih/what-we-do/science-health-public-trust/perspectives/writing-respectfully-person-first-identity-first-language


Director of Training & Professional Development, College of Health & Human Services Equity & Diversity Fellow
Phone: (603) 228-2084 ext. 23
Office: Institute on Disability, 10 West Edge Drive, Durham, NH 03824