Am I a person with autism or an autistic person?
The latter identifies the person with disability; the former is “person first,” and suggests that the person and the disability is different.
If we are talking about a paraplegic or someone who lost an arm, person-first language would make sense. However, I am not a person with autism. That is, if you could “take away” my autism, there would not be a “Troy Camplin” left that in any way would resemble who I am. Autism is a brain structure difference, and that difference results in a particular way of thinking, behaving, acting, interacting, etc., and affects personality.
That is, I am utterly indefinable outside of the autistic structure of my nervous system. The same is true of my son, Daniel. He would not be him, with all his wonderful capabilities and occasional frustrations and difficulties, aside from the autism. Daniel is an autistic person. So am I. We are not people with autism, as though the autism could be taken away and we would remain the same (absent a few communication difficulties). No, we are autistic people. Quite different in our thinking, behaviors, interactions, etc.
This is different from saying I am a person with dark brown hair (or, increasingly, without much hair). The color of my hair does not affect my personality. I am a person with hazel eyes. I am a person with slightly low blood sugar. I am certainly a person with a large number of traits that have nothing to do with my personality, behaviors, thinking, actions, etc. Skin color, nationality, ethnicity, etc have no effect on my morals, behaviors, interactions, etc. But my being autistic does.
The thing with the “person first” language is that it participates in the medicalization of autism. If a person has cancer, you would definitely say they are a person with cancer and not call them a cancerous person (talk about a difference in meaning!); it’s a person with diabetes, not a diabetic person; it’s a person with psoriasis, not a psoriatic person. Things that can be potentially cured, treated, or truly controlled are things appropriately medicalized, as they are diseases of different kinds.
But I am not a disease. I don’t have a disease. And I really don’t have a disability, except from a purely neurotypical-centric world view. Nobody would consider me disabled because I’m left-handed in a right-handed dominant world. Many things are designed exclusively for a right-handed world, making many things difficult for those of us who are left-handed. But do those difficulties make us disabled? Of course not. We adjust. We sometimes find left-handed utensils. Sometimes people adjust to us (letting us sit with our left elbow away from everyone at the dinner table, for example). But we’re hardly disabled on account of it.
And the same is true of being on the autism spectrum. I adjust to the neurotypical world. I try to find autism-friendly social situations when possible. And sometimes neurotypical people need to adjust to us. Failing to do so is simply selfish and rude. Especially if we tell you that we are on the spectrum and explain our communication differences. If we do that and you call those things “excuses” and refuse to adjust your expectations, that makes you the asshole, not us. We don’t mean to be rude, even if we sometimes do things that can be interpreted by neurotypicals as rude; but when we apologize and explain ourselves, the decent thing to do is to accept our apology and to try to understand the communication breakdown with us.
To say someone is a person with something is to say that they remain the same whether they are with the thing or not. I am the same person whether or not I am with my computer, whether or not I am with my cup of coffee; even whether or not I am with my wife and children. I’m a man with a wife and children, not a wife and child person. But I am most certainly an autistic person. It is part of my state of being. My very existence is unthinkable in its absence.