The ways in which we use language reflect how we think about the world. The words we use to describe someone or something are indicative of how we view that someone or something. There are different ways that we can talk about things, and those ways of speaking telegraph our explicit and implicit beliefs about those things. More specific to the topic of this column, there are different ways of talking about autism. In general, there are two different ways that people talk about autism. Most people aren’t aware of the implicit assumptions of those viewpoints, but they are there, and they have meaning.

To me this difference in viewpoint through language can best be exemplified by whether someone refers to another person as an “autistic person” or as a “person with autism.” For now, I will focus on the meaning of the latter.

Consider what we mean when we say that a person “has autism” or that they are a “person with autism.” What are some other things that we refer to in this way? Well, a person might have a chair, or a home or a desk. These are concrete objects, things to hold and possess. We also say that people “have cancer” or “have depression.” Here we refer to physical or psychological ailments, which—while more abstract than chairs and desks—are still things, related to but separate from the individual to whom we refer. It is in this category that we place autism when we say that someone “has autism.” We are saying that autism is a thing, distinct from the individual who has it.

There is another view of autism, which we reference when we say that someone is an “autistic person.” This does not use the word “autism” to refer to a thing, a noun. Our use of “autism” here is as an adjective, a describing word. Here we say that someone has the quality of being autistic, i.e. that autism is a quality, and that that quality is a part of the person we are referring to.

This may seem like a merely syntactic difference, of no importance to anyone but the grammarian. However, in my experience this distinction can mean a great deal to the person being referred to. As I have said before, when we refer to others as being “persons with autism,” we are indicating that “autism” is a thing separate from the individual. In our society, this often comes with the connotation of autism being a bad thing, in the same way that it is bad to be a person with cancer: something that someone does not want and should not want to have. It is that connotation that I am fundamentally opposed to, and it is that connotation that I believe we avoid when we refer to people as “autistic.” By referring to autism as a quality, we change our viewpoint to one in which autism is an identity, a part of who a person is rather than a thing a person has.