There is ongoing debate surrounding the best language to use when referring to individuals on the autism spectrum. Some prefer “a person who is autistic” or “a person who is on the autism spectrum” (e.g., person-first language), while some prefer “an autistic person” (e.g., identity-first language).

In a study of 728 autism stakeholders, researchers sought to examine whether the term “autistic” or the phrase “person with autism” holds favor in the United States. In the study, researchers surveyed 299 adults with autism, 81 parents of those on the spectrum, 44 family members or friends, 207 autism professionals, and 97 people with no ties to the autism community. 87% of adults with an autism diagnosis-preferred identity-first language such as “I am autistic” to describe themselves. A majority of parents liked identity-first language best. But the trend flipped for the autism professionals and the friends and family members surveyed. People in these groups were more likely to prefer person-first terms, and those with no affiliation to the autism community were pretty evenly split on whether to use person-first or identity-first language.

Medical and academic professionals often use terms found in the 5th version of the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, commonly referred to as the DSM-V. The term in the manual is “autism spectrum disorder.” Some individuals would like the word “disorder” replaced with a neutral word. Note that the term “Asperger’s syndrome” was removed from the DSM-V in May 2013; it has been replaced by “autistic spectrum disorder level I.”

Although there is no consensus about preferred language, when interacting with an individual person on the autism spectrum, ask that person which wording they prefer.

For more information, visit Can students with autism be successful in college?, What do “neurodiverse” and “ neurodivergent” mean?, and What are typical challenges and accommodations for students with autism spectrum disorder?