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People First Language

March 29, 2016 3:00 pm Published by

People First Language is an alternative way of talking about individuals with disabilities; it focuses on the person themselves, and not just their disability. People First Language was developed to promote and foster positive communication when speaking to, and about, people with disabilities. It puts the person before their disability, and describes what a person has, not who a person is.

For example, someone who wears glasses does not say “I have a problem seeing”; they say “I wear/need glasses.” The same can be said for someone that utilizes a wheelchair; instead of saying “I have a problem walking”, they say “I use/need a wheelchair.” As it pertains to autism, when we use the term “autistic”, it does not describe that person as a whole. For example, if I say “Bob is autistic”, I am only describing his diagnosis, which does not define who he is as a person. Instead, I can say something along the lines of “Bob is 15 years old, has brown hair and blue eyes, likes music and movies, has autism, and is caring and compassionate.” Having autism is only a part of who Bob is. When referring to someone as “autistic”, we are only referring to a part of them, and may be missing out on the many different aspects of what makes them special and unique outside of their diagnosis.

It is also important to keep People First Language in mind when discussing “high” and “low” functioning individuals. For individuals with developmental disabilities, the areas in which they need support may differ, and using the terms high and low functioning does not give us enough information as to where they need support. Here is a fictional story of two sisters:

Mary lives with her sister, Beth. She uses full sentences to communicate with others, and can travel independently. However, Mary needs assistance with cooking, making her bed, and cleaning her apartment.

Beth does not communicate using verbal language. She needs assistance and supervision while out in the community. However, Beth is able to independently cook, make her bed, and clean her apartment.

In that story, which is high and low functioning? Mary’s deficits are Beth’s strengths, and vice versa. Each woman is “high functioning” in some areas, and “low functioning” in others. Also, although it is nice to hear that your child is “high functioning”, referring to someone as “low functioning” can make an autism diagnosis even more challenging for a family to cope with. Instead, we can say that someone needs more or less support, which does not place them in a high or low category. It is important to be clear about where the individual needs support, instead of giving a general functioning label.

I also find it to be important to limit the usage of “unable to” or “cannot”. These words have a permanent, and oftentimes negative connotation. Even if it is unlikely that someone will be able to complete a certain task, if it is not impossible for them do so, we should not limit them with these terms. Instead, we can utilize terms such as “not yet able to”, which suggest that the individual has the ability to learn a certain skill with the proper supports.

The importance of being “people first” is more about the mindset involved, as it promotes a positive environment for individuals with disabilities and their loved ones. It gives individuals and their families encouragement, and ensures that the individual’s specific wants and needs are addressed, instead of being generalized. Most importantly, it gives us a better understanding of who the person is, outside of their disability. Having a diagnosis of autism, or any other disability, does not define people. We are all people first, and it is important to utilize the language that reflects this.

Kathie Snow has written a great article about People First Language, which is where I generated the information used for this blog. You can click here to see a copy of the article, if you would like to read more on the topic. By being mindful of how we communicate, we are also being mindful of the way that we treat and respect those with disabilities.

Sara Giangiobbe, MAT serves as a Medicaid Service Coordination Supervisor in QSAC’s MSC Department. She has been serving in a multitude of roles with QSAC since 2004. In addition to her professional role in the field of autism and developmental disabilities, she has a younger brother who is diagnosed with autism. She is a proud sibling and professional, and is also a regular contributor to onQ, QSAC’s blog.


QSAC is a New York City and Long Island based nonprofit that supports children and adults with autism, together with their families, in achieving greater independence, realizing their future potential, and contributing to their communities in a meaningful way by offering person-centered services.

QSAC pursues this mission through direct services that provide a supportive and individualized setting for children and adults with autism to improve their communication, socialization, academic, and functional skills.