What words do people prefer to use to describe people on the autism spectrum? 'Autistic'?, 'with autism'?, 'has autism'? The language we use is important because it embodies and can therefore help change attitudes towards autism.

A piece of research published in the Autism journal in 2015 looked at the preferences of people on the autism spectrum, their families, friends and professionals around the language used to describe autism. The research was conducted by The National Autistic Society (NAS), the Royal College of GPs and the UCL Institute of Education.

The findings confirmed that there is no single term that everyone prefers. However, they suggest a shift towards more positive and assertive language, particularly among autistic communities where autism is seen as integral to the person.

Survey responses from 3,470 people were analysed, including 502 autistic adults, 2,207 parents of children and adults on the autism spectrum, 1,109 professionals, and 380 extended family members and friends.

The research found that all groups like the terms 'on the autism spectrum' and 'Asperger syndrome'. Autistic adults like the identity-first terms 'autistic' and 'Aspie', whereas families didn't like 'Aspie'. Professionals also like the term 'autism spectrum disorder (ASD)'.

Some terms were strongly disliked or no longer used, particularly 'low functioning', 'Kanner's autism' and 'classic autism'.

The language we use is important because it embodies and can therefore help change attitudes towards autism. To reflect the findings of this research, the NAS has begun to gradually increase the use of the term 'autistic' – particularly when talking about and to adults in that group. We will also use 'on the autism spectrum' as the default way of describing people on the autism spectrum.

The research shows that language preferences are evolving, and we will continue to research and test how different groups prefer to speak about autism.

The debate around the way we describe autism in the public domain is different to the terms used to diagnose autism by medical professionals. Find out more about diagnostic terms and criteria.