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What autism terminology should you be using so as not to offend?

A group of Australian and NZ researchers, including Professor Andrew Whitehouse, Professor of Autism at the University of Western Australia,  are advocating for an update to the language used to describe autism in studies – and more broadly in society – so scientists can move away from discussing it as something medically abnormal or atypical (with a focus on ‘fixing’ or ‘curing’ it), and instead view autism as a neurological difference, part of the natural spectrum of human diversity and, thus, an inseparable aspect of identity.

The table below provides some practical strategies for replacing potentially offensive terms with autistic-preferred terminology.

Potentially offensive  Autistic preferred
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) Autism, autistic
Person-first language (person with autism) Identity-first language [autistic (person)]
Autism symptoms and impairments Specific autistic experiences and characteristics
At risk of autism May be autistic; increased likelihood of being autistic May be autistic; increased likelihood of being autistic
Co-morbidity Co-occurring
Functioning (e.g., high/low functioning) and severity (e.g., mild/moderate/severe) labels Specific support needs
Cure, treatment, or intervention Specific support or service
Restricted interests and obsessions Specialised, focussed, or intense interests
Normal person Allistic or non-autistic


Although this table may represent the preferences shared by most of the autistic community in autism research, it’s important to remember that views on terminology are highly individual, thus the language used should always respect an autistic person’s individual preferences. In our experience, if you just ask what someone’s preference is, you can never offend.

For example, while identity-first language (e.g., ‘autistic people’) has been consistently demonstrated to be preferred by most autistic people, some autistic people express a preference for person-first language (‘people with autism’).

The language used to talk about autism is important

Well-informed use of terminology can empower and support autistic people, while also changing attitudes of the broader community.

The wider autism communities, including clinicians and researchers, have an important role in promoting autistic-preferred language and centralising autistic perspectives.



This blog contains content from an article published on the Trends in Neurosciences (TINS) platform, which delivers peer-reviewed articles across all disciplines of neuroscience curated by the Editor and authored by leading researchers in their respective fields. Written by a group of Aussie and NZ researchers and co-authored by an autistic academic, it is titled ‘The use of language in autism research‘.

Concluding remarks from the publishing research team

“The terminology preferences of autistic individuals have often been ignored in published autism research, even though these preferences have been clearly demonstrated in several peer-reviewed articles and large community surveys.

It is imperative that researchers, journals, and funding boards promote the terminology preferences of the autistic community and adhere to them, as well as continually interrogate and update their language choices in line with the values of the autistic community.

The evolving use of language to describe autism should be also accompanied by a shift in the way autism research is conducted. Specifically, the increasing use of participatory and co-produced research aims to reduce power imbalance between the researcher and the autistic community and to ensure that autistic people are integrated throughout the research process” 

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