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Families debate person-first, identity-first autism language

'It needs to be addressed because so many diagnoses are happening,' mother says
Posted at 11:59 AM, Mar 04, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-04 17:42:13-05

DELRAY BEACH, Fla. — Is there a right way to identify people on the autism spectrum?

A debate is brewing about person-first versus identity-first language.

Experts tend to think those who choose identity first believe it's about feeling empowered.

On the flip side, a person first means autism doesn't define them.

Ethan Geraghty, 12, and David Brown, 23, like to perfect their tennis skills with their instructor, Lisa Pugliese-LaCroix, who also happens to be a language therapist.

Ethan Geraghty, child with autism
Ethan Geraghty says being autistic isn't a curse but more of a blessing.

"I think there is a big push in the world right now for diversity and inclusion," she commented.

Both Brown and Geraghty said it's autism that makes them special.

"I'm autistic, and I want people to know who I am," Brown said.

"They can call me whatever they want, and it doesn't matter unless it's something that makes fun of my autism, like it's a bad thing, which it is not," Geraghty said. "It's basically a superhero."

Even while playing tennis, there is a debate and conversation happening about people-first language versus identity-first language, especially when it comes to autism. It's a topic that people seem to have strong opinions on.

Lisa Pugliese-LaCroix, language therapist and tennis instructor
Lisa Pugliese-LaCroix is encouraged about the conversation surrounding autism.

"I think the debate is really about the importance of inclusion and not segregating or isolating someone based on a diagnosis," said Pugliese-LaCroix, the founder of Love Serving Autism. "There are two sides to it, and I am feeling like I am a little in the middle because I work with parents who prefer the person-first language, 'My child has autism,' and then I have also met adults who are saying, 'I like to be referred to as an autistic person. I'm proud of this and this is who I am, and because of this I am special.'"

Geraghty's mother, Felicia Katz, uses person-first language when referring to her son.

"To me, he is a person with autism," she said. "If Ethan would one day decide that he was autistic, instead of a person with autism and was adamant about it, I would certainly, out of respect for him, follow whatever his wishes are. Yes, it's very controversial."

"Me personally, I think it is a good idea that people know," said Jean Brown, David's mother.

David Brown said he wanted people to understand him after his mother asked his opinion.

Despite the strong feelings on the topic, most seem to agree that the debate is a good thing.

David Brown, 23-year-old with autism
David Brown shares his thoughts on the autism debate.

"Definitely. It needs to be addressed because so many diagnoses are happening," said Jean Brown.

"It is an important step towards understanding and being empathetic," Katz said.

"I definitely feel encouraged about this conversation," said Pugliese-LaCroix. "Back when I started 19 years ago as a speech therapist, it wasn't discussed."

"Like every other autistic kid or young adult, we want people to understand what we are going through, and that autism isn't a curse, it’s a blessing," Geraghty said.

"Good for you, that was beautifully said," Katz remarked.