Autism and disability: Reframing our view

Recently i have seen a lot of articles and posts on social media distancing the autistic neurotype from the word disability. For the most part i understand where this is coming from, the word disability has been associated with poor life outcomes, and associated with being somewhat of a burden on society and thus something that needs to be cured or eradicated. This is obviously very problematic. What needs to change is not the association of autism and disability, but our understanding of what the word disability means.

Disability is not a dirty word. Disabled people such as myself have the right to exist and enjoy life without people calling for our eradication from society. Disabled people are just as valid as non disabled people. This is why the discourse i have seen surrounding disability and autism is so problematic to me. People are distancing themselves from the word disability due to ableist misconceptions about the meaning of the word.

In the context of autism, as with all life-long conditions and neurotypes, the degree to which autism is disabling changes not only on a case by case basis, but also day to day, hour to hour. For the sake of analogy, allow me to use an example from the medical world (possibly not a perfect example, but i feel it explains my point).

Consider asthmatics. Some asthmatics live their life with very little support needed for their asthma, perhaps not even needing to use inhalers every day, on the other hand, some asthmatics require a great deal of support from specialists and specific medications, the latter obviously finding their asthma particularly disabling. However it is not that simple, any asthmatic will tell you that there are times when their asthma gets really bad and impacts on their life, and those who require more support may find that they have days when their asthma is not as disabling, regardless of the day to day changes, asthmatics still face many challenges and asthma is therefore a disability. As a side note, this is why functioning labels are so problematic. They ignore the ever changing field of strengths and challenges.

In much the same way, some autistic people may navigate life relatively simply (that’s not to say that they don’t face significant challenges) while others may struggle with some of the more basic demands of life such as holding down a job, or remembering to eat and shower. For this reason, i personally believe autism is a disability. Even those of us who navigate the world more easily face challenges which must be overcome.

Of course when i talk of disability in this context, i am talking of the social model of disability. Unlike my asthma example, which is quite definitely an medical disability, autism is a disability because society does not make appropriate accommodations. This is the social model of disability, which i will not get into describing in this article because really it deserves its own article.

There is nothing wrong with being disabled, disabled people are valid people who have much to offer the world. As autistic people, we must stop distancing ourselves from the word disability. It is already hard enough to gain support as autistic people, let alone if we ourselves start denying the challenges we face.

For the sake of those of us who have spent many years trying to access appropriate supports, we must reframe our view of disability. I say it again, disability is not a dirty word. We need to teach people that disability is not something that needs eradicating, but is in fact another thread in the complex tapestry of human diversity. We need to celebrate disabled people and their contributions the way we do non-disabled people. We do not need to be afraid of admitting we (autistic people) have a disability.