What Do I Call You?: How to Communicate About Autism


As a mother of a daughter with autism, people often ask me what should I call your daughter? For me, I love it when people ask because they are thinking about autism and what it means to our family. The question itself seems simple. “What do I call you?” For my family, we do not have strong feelings against any language related to autism and how to refer to individuals with autism.  When our daughter gets older we will allow her to decide how she wants to be referred to.  Here are a few things to consider when referring to individuals with differences.

Person-First Language

You can’t go wrong if you use person-first language. For example, “a person with autism.” When I talk about my daughter, I usually say, “my daughter has autism.”  It sounds easy enough but there are times when it is hard to articulate using first-person language.


In today’s society, we were taught that it is rude to call people by their diagnosis. This might be why friends and family ask me how to refer to autism and my daughter.  In the autism community, there is a group of autism advocates that have autism and refer to themselves as #actuallyautistic.  They advocate for themselves and how they want to be treated.  The #actuallyautistic movement prefers the term “autistic.” Although they have autism they do not represent all autistic people or their families. Our family does not mind calling my daughter autistic because autism is a part of who she is and always will be.

Disorders, Delays, and Differences

When I think about the terms “disorder” or “delay,” I think they have a negative connotation. Autism is referred to as a brain-based disorder characterized by multiple delays.  According to Merriam-Webster, a disorder is defined as, “an abnormal physical or mental condition.” While a delay is defined as, “to be late or slow.”  I do not want my daughter labeled as having a mental condition that makes her slow.

The reality is that my daughter does learn differently and is on a different track than most children her age. There are times when we need to discuss her learning abilities.  That is why I prefer to refer to her “delays” and “disorder” as differences. Think of learning differences versus learning delays.  We are all different and think differently.

When faced with a situation where you are not sure how to refer to someone, just ask. “What do I call you?” It is better to ask, and show that you are thinking of their feelings and you want to ensure they feel comfortable. I think this principle applies across the board: race, religion, ethnicity, gender, and disabilities. In the end, I hope that people refer to my daughter as a friend.


  1. I love this article, thank you Nicole! I literally was just having this conversation internally because my mom still can’t come to grips with my daughter having ASD, and she gets mad saying I shouldnt call her autistic or say she has autism because it will put a stigma over her head. I love the idea of describing her delays as differences

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