The Dangers and Pitfalls of Defining Autism

April is host to Autism Awareness Month as well as the fourth annual Autism Awareness Day (April 2nd). It is a time when concentrated efforts are made by both the media and individuals around the world to educate and help people to understand the statistics and the disorder itself.

Under the surface, there is debate within the autism community as to how autism is best defined. Is “disorder” the right word? Some doctors still refer to it as a “disease.” 

Also, do we use the term “people with autism” or are they “autistics?”

To some, this seems rather trivial but you have to understand, one wrong word can change how an entire world views 1% of the world’s population (autism is now diagnosed at 1 in 110 children according to the CDC). Will we see those with autism as a little different or as a defective person to lock away and institutionalize?

Here are a few points to consider, which should help clear things up a bit.

Autism is not a disease, even if a doctor calls it that. Autism is a disorder, as defined by its very name: “autism spectrum disorder.” The term disorder is actually even more appropriate when you consider what may be happening inside the brain of a person with autism.

There are some people that feel disorder is still too negative of a term when they simply view their loved ones as being “different.” However, there is also a danger in “normalizing” the condition too much.

No insurance agency in the world will help cover costs for being “different” and no government agency in the world will help to support someone who is “different.” There is no therapy available for it and there are no specially trained teachers for it. “Different” is great for you and me, but our loved ones truly are just a little more than that.

When I asked around about the difference between a “person with autism” and an “autistic,” I was met with arguments for and against each. They are broken down like this:

Person with Autism

Pros: This is thought to put the person first and the disorder second. The person is what is important — they are who they are. They have a disorder and therefore, it’s not the primary focus. 

Autism isn’t just something that they have, it’s a part of who they are. It affects how they perceive the world and others and it gives them unique insights into everything around us that most of us would never be able to imagine. Autism is as much a part of them as their eye color, their shoe size or the shape of their face. 


Pros: It is considered just another term, such as diabetic, American or brunette. It’s just a word that helps us to refer to a person in a certain context. Also, as previously mentioned, some people see it as a way to demonstrate that autism is a part of who they are. Without autism, they wouldn’t be who they are and therefore, the term “autistic” is very appropriate.

This puts far too much emphasis on the disorder. A child is a child. A person is a person. They’re not a disorder. Autistic can be viewed as another word for autism and therefore it’s as if you’re talking to a disorder rather than the person who has it.

As you can see, labels can be a very tricky and they’re not something to be taken lightly. Some people treat these differing definitions extremely seriously and even get very upset if you use the wrong term in front of them.

My advice is to learn about autism, learn about how it affects people and then learn about those people because they are all far more unique than the methods we use to define them.

2 Responses to The Dangers and Pitfalls of Defining Autism

  1. Cindy Aro says:

    Our daughter was diagnosed with autistic disorder. I agree with focusing on the child or adult as a person with autism. This concentrates more on the person than the diagnosis/condition. Our daughter is four now and continues to meet her IEP goals. I am so thankful for early intervention it makes a big difference. I also learned from our Doctor who is a chiropractor that digestive ennzymes along with chiropractic and laser therapy can help. It helps our daughter tremendously. In one weeks time my daughter started speaking clear sentences at age 3 and nine months. Answered prayers. If you could please put an article about early invention. Thank you and appreciate your information. Sincerely Cindy Aro

  2. Heidi Bowden says:

    I’ve struggle with this myself. “Autistic” makes me cringe. “I have an autistic daughter.” I can’t even think it. My daughter has autism. Person first is how I want the world to see her. Doctors, schools, insurance reports and forms can call it whatever they want to. I take no offense and realize “it’s business”. It’s the daily living, community as a whole that I want to realize, she’s a sweet little girl first, loving, non-judgmental, talented, brutally honest. I appreciate the article, nicely done.

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Did You Know?

  • * In 1970, Autism affected 1 out of 10,000 children
  • * Autism now affects 1 out of 88 children
  • * Autism affects 1 in 54 boys
  • * 1.7 million Americans have some form of autism
  • * 4 out of 5 autistic children are boys

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