person first language

Using Animation to Educate on Autism Advocacy

Person First

Being autistic means my life is full of unique experiences. Not, like, good experiences, necessarily, although there have been plenty of those, but truly unique and surreal experiences. One such experience that I have had more often than you would like to think is having people correct my terminology when speaking about myself and my community.

On more than one occasion I have referred to myself or another autistic person as “autistic” as that is the preferred terminology for most of the self advocating autistic community, only to have someone who took a class on autism in university chastise me and tell me “that’s actually offensive, it’s Person With Autism” This is the difference between Person First Language (ie: person with autism), which IS the correct terminology when referring to many disabled communities, and Identity First Language (ie: autistic person), which is the preferred terminology for the majority of self advocating autistics.

So when Kim and Sarah asked me if I would be willing to film a short explainer video talking about the differences between person first and identity first language, I thought “why not animate an exaggerated and over-dramatised version of the conversation I’ve had so many times over.” So that's what I did!

Many considerations went into the making of the animation: first, the premise is ridiculous. No one is going to believe that’s a thing that happens, even though it happens ALL. THE. TIME. but that’s okay, it’s a freaking cartoon, there’s a certain level of conceit the audience will allow you to get away with in a cartoon, even if they don’t believe the premise is real. (but it is real. And it’s my supervillain origin story…)

Secondly, I wanted the person correcting me to seem goofy without playing into any negative stereotypes. How do I make him seem ignorant but not stupid, because so many of the tropes about stupidity are actually rooted in stereotypes that harm people with intellectual disabilities (including autism) and that seemed counter productive. I also didn’t want to play into any negative regional stereotypes, like giving him a specific accent, because those can also be harmful. In the end I landed on doing a really bad Ray Romano impression, because all of Ray Romano’s characters seem really well intentioned, just terribly misinformed.

Thirdly, I needed to make sure people understood that there is no one perfect answer. No community is a monolith. You will not find full consensus on any issue within a given community, so while most self advocating autistic people DO prefer identity first language, I also know several people who prefer person first language instead, so when I am speaking too or about them I use person first language, because everyone has the right and the ability to define how they would like to be spoken to or about, and we need to respect that (that’s one of those, easy to do bare minimum kind of respect things).

Lastly, I wanted to include some comedy and shock value so I wrote an ending I was SURE would be rejected by the producers (Kim and Sarah) but to my surprise and delight they gave me the green light. Just goes to show you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, right? (-Wayne Gretzky [-Michael Scott {-Jeff Baker}])

Author - Jeff Baker

Rev. Jeff Baker