Written by Marisa Hamamoto

Quoting Reverend Desmond Tutu, “Language does not just describe reality. Language creates the reality it describes.”  Language evolves, as culture and society evolve. As we learn more about autism, we realize the importance of using words that respect everyone’s unique experience. Changing how we talk about autism helps everyone feel included and understood. Here are some language guidelines for autism.


Avoid Using: high-functioning, low-functioning, mild, severe

  • Why: These labels oversimplify the diverse experiences of people with autism and imply a misleading hierarchy within the spectrum. Autism is a spectrum with a wide range of experiences.


Avoid Using: Level 1 / 2 / 3 Autism

  • Why: While these levels are part of the DSM-5’s diagnostic criteria, using them can often reinforce stereotypes and imply a misleading hierarchy within the spectrum. Autism is a spectrum with a wide range of experiences.


Avoid Using: Suffers from autism, I’m sorry you have autism

  • Why: These phrases imply that autism is inherently negative and something to be suffered from, which undermines the diverse experiences and perspectives of Autistic individuals.


“autistic person” or “person with autism?”

  • It depends. Language preference varies among individuals. Some prefer identity-first language (Autistic person) as they see autism as an integral part of their identity, while others prefer person-first language (person with autism) to emphasize their personhood beyond their autism. It’s ok to ask with care.

Is it ok to call an autistic individual an “autistic?”

  • It depends. So ask. When in doubt go with People First / Identity First language.

Use of these words is encouraged:

  • Neurodiversity: A term that recognizes and respects the diversity of human brains and minds, emphasizing that neurological differences like autism are a natural and valuable part of human diversity.
  • Neurodivergent: Used to describe individuals whose neurological development and functioning are atypical, often used in the context of autism, ADHD, dyslexia, OCD, etc.
  • Unique Strengths/Skills: Highlighting the unique strengths and skills of neurodivergent individuals, rather than focusing on challenges.
  • Access Needs: Instead of focusing on deficits, honor individual access needs so that each Autistic person (and not) can fully partake. We all have access needs.
  • Communication Preferences: Recognizing and accommodating each person’s varied communication styles and preferences.


Gen-Z Slang: Neurospicy

  • “Neurospicy” is another term referring to a neurodivergent individual or group of people.   It was birthed primarily in the Gen-Z community and spread through social media as a way of adding fun to the topic of neurodivergence.  Though popular, the term is not endorsed by all Gen-Z neurodivergent individuals.   


An autistic may have language preferences outside of this guide. Always ask and respect an autistic individual’s preferences.

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