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How to talk about people on the autism spectrum?

How to talk about people on the autism spectrum?

The material was created in cooperation with people on the spectrum and parents of autistic dependents.

In the social context

The social context is the whole spectrum of everyday situations. At school, in the store, on the street, among friends, in the family, at work....

In this context, two approaches have developed

  1. Nidentity first

Autistic/autistic person

This approach is popularized by some people on the autism spectrum who can speak for themselves. These individuals consider autism to be part of their own identity. And they want to express this identity in the form of "I am". I am an autistic person. I am an autist/autistic person. In English, there is often an analogy here with other marginalized groups who also speak of themselves in terms of identity - I am Black, I am Asian, I am gay, I am disabled... - respectively - I am Black, I am Asian, I am lesbian/gay, I am disabled....

Also note that there are non-binary people on the autism spectrum who prefer gender-neutral terms (i.e., just "person"). These individuals should be asked what pronouns they prefer (it, she, he - or others).... You can read more about the pronouns used by non-binary people at

  1. Person first (person first)

Person with autism / Girl with autism / Boy with autism / Woman with autism / Man with autism.

This approach is preferred by some parents of people on the autism spectrum. You can also meet people on the autism spectrum who use it. They want to point out that autism does not define a person in its entirety and is only one of his or her characteristics. According to the principle, "my daughter has blond hair, blue eyes and really likes watching Disney cartoons. And besides that, she has autism."

Opponents of this approach point out that it may suggest that autism is not a fixed trait. That it can somehow be separated from the person. In their view, it may suggest to those without knowledge that autism can be removed, "cured."

In the medical context

The medical context is primarily the moment of diagnosis of a person on the autism spectrum. It also often appears in specialized therapeutic facilities. Especially those that provide assistance to people who require a lot of support.

Autism - a holistic developmental disorder

Autism Spectrum Disorder / Autism Spectrum Disorder / ASD

In the ICD-10 International Classification of Diseases and Health Problems used in Poland, autism is placed in the group of Holistic Developmental Disorders.

The following codes can be found there, among others:

F.84 - childhood autism

F.84.1 - atypical autism

F.84.5 - Asperger's syndrome

Every person who receives a diagnosis from this group, therefore, encounters the term autism as a developmental disorder.

In the new ICD-11 classification, which goes into effect in 2022, autism is placed in a group:

6A02 Autism spectrum disorder

Thus, too, it is defined as a developmental disorder.

It should be noted, however, that the use of medical terms when not justified by a specific medical context ("specific," not "any") , is perceived by many people as stigmatizing. 

In recent years, scientific papers have increasingly used alternative terms such as "autism spectrum conditions "(autism spectrum conditions) or " development on the autism spectrum" (development on the autism spectrum), which are not stigmatizing. These can be expected to proliferate in the future.

If you don't know, ask

How to address a person on the autism spectrum? How to talk about the person? Do you use the "identity first" or "person first" approach?

Except in special situations - for example, special situations occurring in a medical context - the best way to determine how to address a person is simply to ask. If you can't ask the person because it's impossible for various reasons, you can direct the question to the caregiver.

Each of us has the right to define his identity. Everyone knows how his name or surname is pronounced. He chooses which diminutive he uses and which is unacceptable to him. In the same way, everyone has the right to determine how he wants to be referred to.

If you don't know, ask. A person on the autism spectrum, or their parent/guardian, will certainly tell you which form they prefer.

And finally, a recommendation from the JiM Foundation

We recommend that you use the most inclusive language. That is, one that is acceptable to as many people as possible and includes them in the autistic community.

So we recommend that you speak/write:

- autistic person, or

- person on the autism spectrum

- JiM Foundation

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