Getting the Language Right Around Autism

Published by Matt Mason,

Getting the Language Right Around Autism

Getting the language right around Autism is an essential first step when considering a nannying role for an Autistic young person.  

So we’ve teamed up with Laura, the Neurodivergent Nurse, to provide a helpful resource for nannies to do just that.

Hello, I’m Laura

I am an independent Nurse and Sleep Consultant at ‘Laura the Neurodivergent Nurse’.  My work specialises in supporting neurodivergent (ND) people; many of the young people I support are Autistic.

My mini-bio:

I am an independent and freelance Nurse Consultant supporting our Neurodivergent community members.

I’m an Autistic, PDA and ADHD Health care professional, consultant and advocate. My education includes a Masters in Nursing (RN, MSN), Public Health Nursing (PHN) licensure, and a certified Sleep Consultant.

Here’s a link to my Facebook page:

In our first blog, ‘The Questions to Ask Before Nannying an Autistic Child’, we discussed the top points to explore before stepping into a nanny role of an Autistic young person.

So here’s another foundational piece.  Sometimes, Nannies say they are unsure what language to use about an Autistic child and are, therefore, nervous about saying the wrong thing.

Getting the language right:  How this post will help you

A wooden floor with multi-coloured blocks in the foreground. The wooden blocks have letters on each one and are lined up to spell ‘childcare’ and ‘abc’. In the background is a pair of black and white shoes, coloured pencils and a green notebook.

This blog will help guide you through what is often the confusing language about the Autistic community.  

The goal is to help you feel more confident in joining conversations about nannying for Autistic children. 

Getting the language right:  PFL & IFL explained

You may notice as you listen and read more about neurodivergent communities that the discourse may use person-first language (PFL) or identity-first language (IFL).

Neurodivergent is a non-medical umbrella term to describe people with a variation in thinking and processing of information that diverges from societal expectations. Examples of Neurodivergent communities are – Dyslexics, Dyspraxics, ADHDers, and Tourette’s Syndrome. 

Getting the language right - a chart the describes Person first language and Identity for language

Person-first language (PFL) was created to be an equaliser and to be applied to everyone.

  • The structure of PFL is with the noun (referring to a person) preceding the phrase referring to a disability.
  • Examples of PFL include “child with autism” or “person with a disability”.
  • This style of language is common in scholarly and medical writing.

Many professionals who work with Autistic people also tend to use PFL.  

For example, they may refer to an Autistic child as a ‘child with ASD’ or say I work with ‘people who have autism’.  Their language likely comes from the language exemplified in scholarly writing.  

As you can imagine, the language that a practitioner or therapist uses significantly influences the language that the Autistic person or carer of an Autistic person uses.  The professional holds a very influential position.

A nanny caring for two children.

Similarly, this is often how parents and carers view Nannies – childcare and child development experts.  

And how you speak about the children in your care influences the family.

Some parents also choose or use PFL based on the language that is role-modelled around them.

  • Autism, then, is not considered part of the child’s identity.
  • Instead, the use of PFL by the parent in thinking it emphasises their child’s humanity.
  • Many parents quote, “he/she is so much more than their autism”.

Getting the language right:  Making it less scary!

In addition, Autism is stigmatised and even referred to in society as the ‘a’ word.  Society has built Autism up as scary.  Therefore, it can be difficult for people to think about discussing Autism involving their family.

Furthermore, it can be challenging for parents to accept a diagnosis that includes the term ‘disorder’, as often Autism is misused in texts as a mental-health disease.  And many parents of Autistic children do not think of their child as diseased or having a disorder, as those terms have negative connotations.

Using PFL creates some space between the child and Autism.

While scholarly and medical writing set out with the intention of everyone applying PFL.  But this has not happened.

  • Instead, research shows PFL is applied more frequently to refer to disabled children than non-disabled children.
  • Furthermore, PFL is most commonly used when referring to children with the most stigmatised disabilities.
  • Therefore, using PFL may have a reverse effect: PFL in scholarly writing may accentuate stigma.

“Why do others have to be reminded of my humanity?  Isn’t that inherent?”

Autistic criticism of PFL

Many Autistic self-advocates and their allies advocate for identity-first language (IFL).

Surveys show about 95 – 100% of Autistics prefer the IFL language.

  • Please note that not all Autistics would have access to these online surveys.
  • In IFL, the disability serves as an adjective and precedes the personhood-noun.
  • Examples of IFL include “Autistic child” or “Disabled person”.

Identity-first language (IFL) understands and respects how Autism is an inherent part of someone’s identity.  

This is similar to how society refers to a “gay man” versus “a man with gayness” or “a woman” versus “a person with womanliness”.

It is impossible to separate a person from their identities.  It is impossible to separate a person’s experience from their identity.  From our perspective, we interact with others and the environment, which is a collection of our identities.

One cannot respect an Autistic person without recognising and respecting their Autistic identity.

Please note: using the terms and language about someone they self-advocate for is always appropriate.  

We deserve to describe ourselves how we see fit.

The use of IFL reframes the discourse about Autism as a disorder to that of validating the Autistic identity.

  • In this way, we can better understand whether someone is or isn’t Autistic.
  • This then translates to a Nanny learning about Autistic traits and culture to better care for an Autistic young person.
  • For an Autistic young person to learn, have fun and thrive, their care must be in-line with Autistic traits and culture.

Keep the learning going

To learn more about Autistic traits and culture, you can follow self-advocates like me and many of my colleagues, who are wonderfully diverse.

Laura Hellfeld, the neurodivergent Nurser Logo provides advice on Nannying an Autistic Child

To learn more about Autistic traits and culture, you can follow self-advocates like me and many of my colleagues, who are wonderfully diverse.

A square banner image supporting the blog on the questions you should ask before nannying an Autistic child

Want to read on?

And here’s another blog post we shared that explored the questions you should ask before nannying for an Autistic child.

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