Autistic Person or Person with Autism? the Effect of Diagnostic Terminology on First Impressions
The terms people use to describe autism can vary widely. Professionals continue to favor person-first language (e.g., “person with autism”), whereas members of the autism community increasingly prefer identify-first language (e.g., “autistic person”) (Kenny et al., 2016). We previously reported that first impressions of autistic adults made by their typically-developing (TD) peers improve when their diagnosis is known relative to when it is withheld (Sasson and Morrison, in press), but it is unclear whether these impressions differ depending upon how their diagnosis is described.
This study examined whether different diagnostic terms for autism affect how TD people form first impressions of autistic adults, and whether these patterns differ depending upon the observer’s level of knowledge and familiarity with autism.
203 TD undergraduate raters (171 female; mean age=21.30) viewed 10 second videos of 20 autistic adults (17 male; mean age=24.5; mean full-scale IQ=106.4) performing a mock audition for a television program (see Sasson et al., 2017 for details). Individuals in the videos were labeled either as having “no diagnosis”, “has autism”, “is autistic”, “is on the autism spectrum”, “has Asperger’s”, or “has a disability”. Raters provided impressions on ten items for each video using a four point scale: six trait items (attractiveness, awkwardness, intelligence, likeability, trustworthiness, and dominance) and four intentions to interact items (e.g., likelihood of hanging out with the person; see Sasson et al., 2017). Raters also completed the Autism Awareness Scale (Gillespie-Lynch et al., 2015) and the Level of Contact Report (Holmes et al., 1999).
Using multi-level modeling, providing any label yielded more favorable impressions compared to a “no diagnosis” label (p‘s<.002). Specific comparisons of labels revealed participants labeled as autistic were rated higher on attractiveness and hanging out with compared to all other labels (p’s<.01) except has autism (p=.053), and higher on likeability compared to has a disability and on the autism spectrum (p’s<.03). The autistic label also resulted in higher ratings on intelligent compared to all other labels (p’s<.01) except for on the autism spectrum. Level of contact with autism predicted higher first impressions for participants labeled as autistic (p=.001), but lower impressions for the autism, on the autism spectrum, and Asperger’s labels (p’s<.048). Autism knowledge predicted higher first impressions when any label was provided relative to when presented as having “no diagnosis” (p=.001), but individually autism knowledge was only positively associated with the autistic label (p=<.01).
Results suggest the identifying an individual as autistic evokes more favorable first impressions by unfamiliar TD observers relative to other common terms used to describe autism. The benefit of using the term autistic was particularly beneficial for those with higher autism knowledge and with personal connections to autism. Taken together, these findings indicate that the identify-first language preferred by many autistic adults results in more favorable first impressions, which in turn may increase the quantity and quality of their social experiences (Sasson et al., 2017).