How to Talk about Autism & Our Autistic Students

autism acceptance

Words are powerful. They can make a big difference, especially when it comes to people. And in the autism community, the words we use matter.

In this community, we work hard to understand autism better. Using the right words can show respect and grow that understanding, while the wrong ones can harm it.

As an autistic special education teacher who also works with autistic kids, I’ve learned a lot from my lived experience, from my co-workers, and most especially from my students. I’ve used lots of terminologies when talking about autism.

But language is ever-changing. What we knew and used before might not be the right term now. So how do we keep up?

This article is here to help you relearn how to talk about autism and your autistic students.

What Is Autism?

When talking about something, we must understand it first. So, what is autism?

You’ve likely come across those lists talking about eye contact and repetitive movements, but here’s the real deal: autism is often poorly defined as a bunch of flaws. There are also many misconceptions about autism.

Autism falls on a spectrum, which means it covers a wide range of differences in people. Every autistic person is a unique human with a mix of strengths and weaknesses, just like everyone else.


Communication styles in autism are not often understood. Autistic people communicate in different ways. Some of us do a great job with communicating, while others find it to be extremely challenging. 

About 1:3 of autistic people are non-speaking, minimally speaking, and unreliably speaking. Learn more from Toby here about her lived experience as a semi-verbal autistic adult. They might use words differently, use non-verbal communication, or express themselves through behavior. There’s also what we call selective or situational mutism, where the person can speak but may not due to anxiety or trauma.

Sensory Processing

People vary a lot in their senses – some handle spicy food better, while others feel temperature more intensely. Sensitivity to different sensations has a range, and it is the same for autistic individuals.

It’s known that extreme sensory sensitivity is often seen in autistic people. Everyday sensations can be intense and overwhelming, leading to sensory overload. But some autistic people may have diminished sensitivities too. They may seek sensory stimulation and look for certain textures or sounds.

Social Communication and Awareness

Social communication can be a bit different for autistic individuals. They may find it challenging to pick up on social cues like facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. That’s why some of them might prefer structured communication over social interactions.

But as we always try to explain, it’s not the same for everyone. While some autistic people may face challenges, others may excel in social situations.

Movement / Neuro-Motor Differences

Many autistic people face challenges with movement. With this information, we may understand autism as a sensory-movement disability rather than a social one.

See, the brain’s job is to interpret what our body senses and make our body move accordingly. Autistic people might have differences in how they do this.

Saying someone has a motor-based disability means they might struggle with certain movements, even if they can do other things well. For example, some autistic people find it hard to control their eye movements, which can affect eye contact.

Many autistic characteristics might be a result of neuro-motor differences. Recognizing and accommodating these differences may help in better understanding autistic individuals.

Repetitive Behavior

Repetitive behavior such as hand-flapping, rocking, or repeating words is a common characteristic among autistic people. This behavior often serves as a way for them to self-regulate, cope, or find comfort.

However, this behavior has a wide variety of traits that may appear in various combinations.

What’s more, repetitive behavior is not unique to autism. It’s part of typical development in babies and it can be seen in other conditions of the brain.

Monotropic Mindset

A monotropic mindset means focusing intensely on one thing or interest at a time. This is often associated with autism.

Autistic individuals with a monotropic mindset may excel in their chosen fields due to their deep concentration and dedication to specific topics or activities. But, this focused mindset can also lead to difficulties in shifting attention or multitasking.

Relearning How We Talk about Our Autistic Students

We’ve learned a lot about how autism is connected to a person’s identity. Because of this, we need to be careful about the words we use when talking about autistic students.

However, understanding how to talk about autism can be a bit tricky. We know that there are right words to say and wrong words to avoid, but because language is always changing, we’re not sure what those are.

Before we proceed with the tips on how to relearn how you talk about autistic students, keep these two things in mind.

First, every autistic person is different, so what they like to hear may vary. Next, if you’re not sure, you can just ask them directly about their preferences. Most people appreciate your honesty and will be glad you care about what they like.

Use the Correct Terminology

Language matters. Using respectful and accurate terms not only promotes understanding but also helps to break down stereotypes.

For example, instead of “nonverbal,” use the correct term: semi-verbal, AAC user, nonspeaking, etc.

Most nonspeakers prefer the term “nonspeaking” because they can understand and use words, just not through speech.

In addition, “nonspeaking” is a broad term that includes three groups – nonspeaking, minimally speaking, and unreliably speaking. They all have their differences so you must use the accurate term when talking about your students.

Person-First or Identity-First?

One language that’s very important for your autistic students is the choice between person-first and identity-first.

Person-first language places the person before the condition, like saying “person with autism,” or “boy with disability.” This isn’t preferred by most autistic people, though it’s preferred by some disabled people who see their disability as something they have, not what they are.

Identity-first language, on the other hand, puts the condition first, as in “autistic person,” or “disabled boy.” Most people like to use this because they see being autistic as part of their identity, not as something they have. It’s okay to say “autism” and not “person with autism.” Autistic is not a bad word!

Just keep in mind that some individuals have a strong preference, so it’s best to ask how they’d like to be referred.

The Use of Positive Terms

When talking about autism, it’s a good idea to use language that puts it in a positive light. Many of your autistic students have faced tough times because of their autism, so highlighting their positive qualities means a lot to them.

Use strength-based language and refrain from using terms that signify that the autistic person’s innate way of being is wrong or incorrect. For example, instead of saying “deficits in social communication,” you could say “has a preference to talk about his interests with others.”

Another positive way to talk about your autistic students is to say they are “gifted with autism.” This focuses on the many good things about autism.

It’s also okay to say someone is on the autism spectrum, recognizing the diversity among autistic people.

Terms to Avoid

As important as it is to use positive words, it’s also important to avoid negative language.

For instance, saying someone “suffers from autism” isn’t recommended. Many of your autistic students don’t feel like they’re suffering because of being autistic. Using the term Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may also be best to skip, as many people don’t see it as a disorder.

Moreover, it’s best to throw terms like “low-functioning” and “high-functioning” out, as functioning labels can be misleading. Autism doesn’t fit into categories like degrees of a burn. It affects each person differently, and terms like this judge your autistic students against non-autistic standards. Even if an autistic person doesn’t speak much, it doesn’t make them any less functioning.

Here are other terminologies to avoid, as suggested by the National Autistic Society (NAS):

  • Everyone is a little autistic
  • Disorder
  • Disfunction
  • Syndrome
  • Disease
  • Illness
  • Treatments
  • Symptoms

These words refer to autism as a mental illness. Remember that autism is a neurological difference, and using these terms suggests that something is wrong with your students and they need curing.

Avoiding Ableist Language

People often use words that can be hurtful without realizing it, especially when it comes to physical disabilities or differences in how brains work.

Using words like “stupid, ”insane,” or “crazy” can be hurtful, and it’s a form of ableism.

What is ableism? Ableism is when people with disabilities are treated unfairly because some people think typical abilities are better.

There are two types of ableist language:

  • Words and phrases based on physical disabilities
  • Words and phrases based on neurodivergence

Words like “dumb” or “lame” are commonly used to mean something else, but they actually refer to difficulties in communication or problems with walking. Similarly, terms like “spastic” are used to describe chaotic behavior, but the scientific meaning is muscle tightness caused by certain conditions.

And there’s a lot more. Nowadays, people are so used to saying “I’m so OCD about cleaning,” or “retarded,” and these can minimize the experiences of those with real neurological differences.

It’s okay if you’ve used these words before – you’re not a bad teacher. But if you can, try to be aware of how your words can keep ableism going and consider changing the way you speak.

Your autistic students want others to see their autism as a positive and essential part of who they are, not as something negative or a sickness.

So it’s best to be aware of the language that you use when talking about them.

Most importantly, they’d appreciate being asked about the words they like and being heard and respected when they share their preferences.

Why not help others relearn their language, too? Hang these neurodiversity posters in your office to teach others the importance of changing our language to be neurodiversity-affirming!