Individuals with developmental conditions, such as autism, experience stigma, which is reflected in derogatory language and labels. To limit stigma associated with disabilities, government agencies and medical organizations have adopted the use of person-centered language (PCL). This study investigated adherence to PCL guidelines among peer-reviewed research publications focused on autism. In addition, we investigated the co-occurrence of stigmatizing language in articles using person-first language (PFL) and identity-first language (IFL) styles.
We performed a systematic search of PubMed for autism-focused articles from January 2019 to May 2020. Articles from journals with more than 20 search returns were included, and a random sample of 700 publications were screened and examined for inclusion of prespecified, non-PCL terminology.
Of the 315 publications, 156 (49.5%) were PCL compliant. Articles frequently used PCL and non-PCL terminology concomitantly, and 10% of publications included obsolete nomenclature. A logistic regression model showed the odds were more likely that publications using IFL were more likely to include other stigmatizing terminology than publications using PFL (odds ratio = 2.03, 95% confidence interval: 1.15–3.58).
Within medical research, the language to describe individuals and populations needs to be used with intentionality and acknowledges that individuals are more than the diagnosis under study. This may reduce the structural stigma that may be implied otherwise. Our study showed that when PFL is used when addressing individuals with autism, other more stigmatizing language is often avoided and is in line with medical education and clinical practice.