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Autism Terminology

“Autistic,” “With Autism” and “Asperger’s”

Caroline Miller

People use several different terms when talking about autism. Some prefer to say “a child with autism” and some prefer “an autistic child.”

The two terms reflect different ways of thinking about autism, and some people have strong feelings about them.

Person-first

Those who use “child with autism” prefer it because they feel it emphasizes the child’s identity outside of their diagnosis. They’re making a statement that the child is not defined by autism.

This is commonly called “person-first” language and is often recommended as a respectful way to talk about people with disabilities and other health issues.

Identity-first

Other people, including many autism activists, prefer to use the term “autistic” because they feel that autism should not be seen as a disability or disorder. Instead, it should be seen as a difference, a form of what’s called “neurodiversity.” They feel that autism should be respected as part of one’s identity.

This is known as “identity-first” language. Autistic self-advocates say that being autistic is part of who they are — just like other labels like Catholic, Black, female, and so on.

They argue that saying “with autism” implies that autism is a negative thing that has happened to a person, rather than an integral part of their identity.

At the Child Mind Institute we use both “autistic” and “with autism” to acknowledge the diversity of people’s opinions.

Asperger’s

Some people also refer to their child having “Asperger’s disorder,” or just “Asperger’s.”

This term is used to describe autistic children who have some symptoms of autism but do not have language or intellectual impairment. These children are also sometimes described as having “high functioning autism.” Their symptoms are mild and don’t, for the most part, prevent them from functioning effectively and excelling in many fields.

Until 2013 Asperger’s disorder was a diagnosis separate from autism in the DSM-IV, the official guide to mental health disorders. But in 2013, when the DSM was updated (to the DSM-5), Asperger’s disorder was folded into the autism spectrum disorder diagnosis.

But many people do continue to use it.