Wednesday, April 11, 2018

I'm a Complex Human Being, Dammit! or Identity- vs Person-First Language

Of all the things making up human beings, I'd say a strong identity is the most important. Psychologist Erik Erikson agrees, making that the crucial stage in his theory of psychosocial development. Erikson argues that while adolescents are growing and changing into physical adults, they have to grapple with what social roles they'll take and how they'll define themselves in the world. This leads to someone either developing a strong sense of self or causing major uncertainty of where they fit in, known as "role confusion", that could lead to an "identity crisis" of who they are. All of this is dependent on if that person is encouraged or discouraged by their family, peers, and society at large allowing them to explore different possible identities and accepting their conclusion.

I bring this up because there's a lot of controversy over what people call those on the autism spectrum. Autism is a neurological condition that affects social development, making Erikson's psychosocial development model a lot more complicated over how to recognize autism being a part of one's identity. It could be said autism as a concept is in the adolescent years of "identity vs role confusion", as people argue over whether it should be considered an social identity (aka "identity-first") or something separate from one's overall characteristics (aka "person-first").

Again, I would like to reiterate that my feelings on my use of language concerning autism are my own and I won't dictate what others should do. I'm only using these posts on autism language to express why I feel that way I do and why I do what I do. I'm not gonna tell anyone how they should talk about autism because it's not my place to do so and I don't want people angry with me over it. This is just how I personally feel.

With that in mind, let me explain why I prefer "autistic people" over "people with autism".

When I started sharing this blog with people, I got comments from family, friends, and even professionals who weren't comfortable with me using autism as an identifier and not a separate qualifier. They told me that autism shouldn't be the sole definer of who a person is and that using it as a social identity reduces that person to a specific thing that doesn't fully recognize that person's complexity. The argument is that autism may be a diagnosis, but it doesn't truly convey who that person is as a rounded individual. In short, it's my argument from the "functioning" post that people shouldn't be put into neat little boxes because it limits who they are as a whole. The disabled pioneers of disability movement used person-first language for that exact reason - we're people, not the disability.

My argument against this is people are complex because there are many things that define who they are. A person can identify as multiple things because no one person is just one thing. People experience the world through various factors like race, sex, religion, gender and sexual identity, economic background, and more. Disability and mental illness are part of that experience and I think dismissing them as being secondary isn't giving credit to them as a major factor of how the disabled and mentally ill see the world and themselves in relation to it. This is especially true if they also aren't part of the accepted majority in other areas - i.e. straight wealthy cisgender Protestant men.

Furthermore, in a world where socialization is key in how people relate to each other, autism is a major influence in how someone operates. The autism diagnosis is defined by its affect on someone's ability in meeting developmental milestones in social skills, communication, and behavior. All these things shape how they interact with the world and how the world reacts to them. Given all of this, I'd argue it's impossible to separate the diagnosis from who someone is. If people are expected to behave and communicate in certain ways as social creatures, how does someone acting outside the accepted norm not inform who they are?

This isn't to say I think autism should be the sole identifier of a person. As I've said before, people are complex creatures that wear many hats. Being white, female, Jewish, and heterosexual all inform me as a person and my experience of the world as much as autism does. But my trouble with getting the accepted social behaviors and controlling my more negative emotions have affected my education, my social life, and my understanding of how the world works as much as my gender, religion, race and sexuality do. These elements cannot be easily separated from who I am as a human being. Autism isn't the only thing I am, but it is an important enough thing for me to fundamentally not know who I'd be without autism. 

At the end of the day, I honestly don't care how people use autism to describe me. I'm not gonna tell someone off for describing me and others as a "person with autism" or "autistic person" because I know people get sensitive about it. But I want people not tell me off for believing autism is an identity than something separate. I am many things and autism happens to be one of them. It's not a bad thing, it just is.

I won't judge you calling me someone "with autism". Just don't tell me I have to describe myself as you do.

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