The Terminology of Neurodiversity

Giuseppe Oliveri, Staff Writer

Tell me what sounds better to you; Autistic person, or a person with Autism? Probably the latter. Then why is it that we usually end up using terms like “Autistic” rather than terms that acknowledge the individual as well? We have all fallen victim to this, just describing an individual as Autistic, blind, deaf, or whatever their disability may be without respecting the fact that they are also individuals who are not defined by one aspect of their existence. Autism, ADHD, Down Syndrome, among many other terms, are part of the concept of neurodiversity.  

So what does neurodiversity mean? Neurodiversity is the idea that everyone’s brain functions differently, and those differences are normal and should be embraced. Neurodivergent individuals experience, interact with, and interpret the world in unique ways. This concept can help reduce the stigma around learning and thinking differences. Neurodiversity is nothing more than certain individuals seeing the world and interacting with it in ways unique to themselves. It shows that there is no one “right or wrong” way of thinking or interpreting something, rather it proves there is always more than one way to think and open our minds to new possibilities.

One of the most important aspects in the world of neurodiversity is the terminology of it. What is considered appropriate and what is not when addressing one who falls in the category of neurodivergent? There are two types of ways we can address someone who is considered neurodivergent, person-first terminology and identity-first terminology. So what’s the difference between the two?

Person-first terminology takes the individual and puts them first before saying what disability they have. For example, we would say something along the lines of “Someone who has autism.” Doing this helps us respect the individual as a person rather than putting the focus on autism. Besides making sure we recognize the individual first, it is just as important to mention what they have instead of what they are. Saying someone “has” is more appropriate to say when describing one with any form of disability, compared to its counterpart. 

The counterpart to person-first terminology is identity-first terminology. Identity-first terminology focuses more on one’s disability rather than their individuality. An example of identity-first terminology would describe another as “an Autistic person” or saying “the person is autistic.” The major difference in this terminology compared to person-first terminology is now we are describing what someone is, as opposed to what someone has. The difference, while small in the explanation, is huge in the grander scheme of things. Saying that someone “is” rather than “has” can potentially demoralize someone and make it seem as if they are not as good as everyone else, or could be treated and looked at differently. 

Despite it being commonly accepted that the appropriate way to address someone who is neurodiverse is with person-first terminology, there are still some cases where said individual actually prefers being addressed with identity-first terminology. With certain disabilities it is more common to use identity-first terminology. The major examples of this is when it comes to those who are deaf or blind. When we address someone with one of these disabilities, we tend to refer to them as either blind or deaf; we don’t say “someone with deafness or blindness.” According to Ray Perry of AccessATE, this is actually commonly preferred among the blind and deaf communities. Often, they would rather be addressed with identity-first terminology rather than person-first terminology. 

Although it is more common to address the neurodiverse community with person-first terminology, there are cases where identity-first terminology is preferred and considered the correct way of addressing someone who has a disability. The best thing we can do is just ask what someone would prefer before addressing them. The truth is we are all our own person and have our own likes and dislikes. We all have different viewpoints on different things and that is what makes us unique.