Talking about autism    

The language we use to talk about autism is always changing and sometimes it can be confusing to know which terms are good to use or not. This causes a lot of anxiety for people who are worried about getting things wrong and causing offence. 


For example, medicine has moved beyond using terms like ‘high functioning’ and ‘low functioning’ to describe autistic people, instead saying that someone has ‘higher support needs’ because the ‘old’ way of speaking implied that high functioning individuals may not require much support. 


Some autistic individuals may have a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, what would have formerly been called a case of high-functioning autism, however this diagnosis is not given anymore. You can learn more about why this change has happened in this verywell health article. But that term still feels ‘right’ for some people – so you can see where things get confusing, even for autistic people themselves! 


The National Autistic Society have written a helpful guide of things to say or not to say to autistic people which you can find here. 


Know that your anxiety about the issue is a common problem, you are not alone in worrying about what terms to use. Try your best to be inclusive, open minded and listen to autistic people and how they describe themselves. 


Person-First Language vs. Identify-First Language 

For a long time, language has been person first e.g. focused on describing ‘people with autism’ in the same way we might describe someone as a ‘person with chickenpox’ like they have something ‘wrong’ with them. However, a lot of autistic people find this offensive and instead want to be known exactly like that – autistic people! 


“I hate hearing ‘person with autism’ as it implies I could have existed without autism. Autism is a big part of who I am and how I experience the world.“

- An autistic individual


However, please note that not every autistic individual will agree with this. 


The Autistic Self Advocacy Network have a great write up on Identify First language which you can access here.  


If you are ever in doubt about what terms to use, or how to describe someone the best advice is to ask the individual you are speaking to! Ask questions like ‘how would you describe yourself’, ‘what does autism mean to you’ and ‘how can I be inclusive to autistic people’. You may get things wrong sometimes but if you are honest and open this will go a long way to help people feel included. 


“The most important thing for me is that people speak to me respectfully and don’t make things awkward for me. Sometimes people will use terms I don’t like but they mean well so I just kind of let that go because they don’t have any bad intentions. I appreciate when people try, even if they make mistakes.”
-An autistic individual 


There is a huge variation across autistic people in how they describe themselves, so don’t ever assume what works for one person works for everyone. Be open minded and listen to any feedback. 



This content was produced as a part of the Supporting Autistic Individuals intoApprenticeships project. This initiative is a partnership between the Greater Manchester Learning Provider Network (GMLPN) and NCFE, hosted on the CACHE Alumni website. The project aims to bring employers, training providers and referral agencies together to provide bespoke training and mentoring support for autistic learners, which will help them progress onto an apprenticeship or other form of employment or training.  GMLPN is a network of over 100 Independent Training Providers, Colleges of Further Education, Schools and Universities. NCFE is one of the largest awarding organisations in the UK, and a specialist in vocational training and qualification development. To find out more about this project please go to email[email protected].