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Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological and developmental disorder that affects how people interact with others, communicate, learn, and behave. ASD should never be referred to as a mental illness or a disease. Both autism and autism spectrum disorder (or ASD) are acceptable ways of referring to the disorder, depending on the audience and the context.
Characteristics vs. symptoms
Use the terms characteristics, or traits, instead of symptoms when referring to people with autism.
Avoid using the terms cure and prevention in relation to autism.
High-support needs vs. high-/low-functioning
Avoid using the terms high- or low-functioning when referring to a person with autism (or any condition). This language is stigmatizing, dehumanizing, and vague. Instead, describe the person’s needs specifically, e.g., high-support needs; person with intellectual disabilities; person with language disabilities.
Neurodiversity describes the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many ways, with no one "right" way of thinking, learning, and behaving, and differences are not deficits. Neurodiversity refers to the diversity of all people, but it is often used in the context of autism spectrum disorder and other neurological or developmental disorders such as ADHD or dyslexia. This language can be helpful to use when talking about workplace or classroom accommodations for neurodiverse people. Referring to someone as neurodiverse or neurodivergent is a way to focus on the positive aspects of their differences and what that can bring to the group setting.
Nonspeaking vs. nonverbal
Use nonspeaking instead of nonverbal. Many people on the autism spectrum may be nonspeaking but are able to communicate very well using technology or other means.
Person with autism, autistic person, person on the autism spectrum
The autism community is diverse and while some people prefer person-first language — person with autism or person on the autism spectrum — others have proudly claimed identity-first language and prefer autistic person. Generally, person on the autism spectrum is the least polarizing term. Informally, some NIH ICOs will switch back and forth between person-first and identity-first language around autism to be inclusive.
Likelihood vs. risk
Use increased likelihood for autism instead of terms like risk of autism or at risk for autism. Likelihood is more specific and less stigmatizing.
Interventions, services, therapies vs. treatment
In relation to ASD specifically, use the terms interventions, services, and/or therapies (as appropriate) and avoid using treatment.
This page last reviewed on November 14, 2023