Autism: Why all teachers need to use the same terms

Confused about how to refer to autistic pupils? You’re not alone - but you need to be consistent, says Adam Black

Adam Black

Autism: 'It’s vital that teachers use the right terms'

I was at a school development group last week and ended up sitting near a teacher I hadn’t spoken to often before. He was brilliant: passionate about his work and pupils and conscientious in his manner – we really clicked.

We ended up discussing additional support needs (ASN) and autism. It was here that we realised we both used different terms to describe autism. It got me to thinking: what terms are out there and how are they used and perceived by the wider education and autism community?

'Autistic spectrum disorder (ASD)'

This is commonplace in schools and you’ll often see it on support plans. It is medically accurate and many official documents will contain this acronym. There has been an argument, over many years, for some to cease using it based on the word "disorder" having negative connotations for young people. That said, it was still a favourable response in a study by Kenny et al.

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'Autistic spectrum condition (ASC)'

Again, this is increasingly common in schools as part of the support plan on official documents. The word "condition" was thought to be softer and less negative than disorder, although I would potentially argue that it serves the same purpose, especially if used long-term.

'People/children with autism'

Academics often favour "person-first language" (eg, "people with...") when writing papers or lecturing. In a recent study supported by the National Autisitic Society, for which 3,470 people were interviewed, almost half of professionals favoured a person-first approach – but far fewer autistic adults and parents. Autistic adults suggest that person-first language separates a person’s autism from their identity, undermining the positive characteristics of autism, and gives value to the idea that autism is a fundamentally wrong way of being.

'Autistic child/man/woman, etc'

This is the favoured response in the study by Lorcan Kenny and is referred to as "disability-first names". This term was endorsed by a large percentage of autistic adults, family members, friends and parents, but by considerably fewer professionals. It was the favoured outcome of autistic adults and parents in the study.

'On the spectrum'

This was a highly endorsed term in the study, and one you hear often in educational establishments. My own view is that it can be misleading to use this term in a professional context if people are unfamiliar with the Kanner spectrum.

My own view is to stay away from abbreviations (ASD, ASD) and to refer to "autism" and "autistic pupil/child/people", and I was pleased to see this view backed up in the Kenny study. If this is favoured by those who have autism, then I feel it's what we should all do.

How is autism referred to in your school? What terms do you use? Are they the same as those used by other people in the school or even learning community? Maybe it’s time to have that conversation and ensure a bit of consistency.

Adam Black is a primary teacher in Scotland who, in the New Year's Honours list, received the British Empire Medal for raising awareness of stammering. He tweets @adam_black23

*Read more on autism later this afternoon:  Autism in schools: why more training is not the answer



Kenny, L, Hattersley, C, Molins, B, Buckley, C, Povey, C, and Pellicano, E (2016). Which terms should be used to describe autism? Perspectives from the UK autism community. Autism, 20(4), 442-462.

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