Is autism a disability?

When we think about autism, a number of things may (or may not come) to mind. The question of whether Autistic people are disabled is one that has been discussed for decades, with medical professionals largely being the ones to hold the power over how this answer is reached. Many may think of Autistic people as living tragic and unfulfilled lives, while others will talk about us having “superpowers” and advantages over others. The fact of the matter is that neither of these answers capture the full range of Autistic experience.

What is a disability?

There are two commonly cited models that define how we think about disability (there are more than two, but for the purposes of this article we will think about the two most common).

  1. The Medical Model of Disability:
    • In terms of disability theory, this model posits that disability arises from physiological issues. In other words, a problem with the body gives rise to a body that can not full participate in society.
    • With respect to autism, this means that Autistic people are viewed as having improper development of the brain that leads to deficits when compared to a non-Autistic cohort.
  2. The Social Model of Disability:
    • The social model positions disability as the result of systemic discrimination and lack of accessibility.
    • According to this model, Autistic people are not disabled by autism itself, given that autism is a socially constructed diagnostic category, but rather by a world that is designed for a very specific groups of individuals (for example, neurotypical people).
    • This means that disability can be accommodated through the use of accessibility features that make the environment better adapted to the Autistic person.

The problem with these two models of disability is that they do not entirely fit autism as a diagnostic category. While it is true that many Autistic people can feel less disabled with accommodations and changes to the environment, things such as an aversion to bright lights will still be an issue on sunny days. Regardless of this, it does not mean that a person has a disordered brain, hence neither model is a perfect fit.

Dynamic Disability

Autism itself doesn’t exist, what does exist is Autistic people. People rarely remain exactly the same over a period of time, and as such, neither does disability. For this reason, I refer to being Autistic as a dynamic disability. This means that a number of factors have to come together to define our strengths and struggles, and the role they play in our lives from day to day.

Some day’s we may feel very capable and achieve what we need to, other days might be more difficult and we may feel more like a disabled person.

The problem is that disability has been conceptualised in society as a fixed point, meaning that when we have those good days, it can lead to imposter syndrome and make us question our own experience of being Autistic.

Functioning Labels

You will likely have heard people talk about “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” autism. You may have heard of levels 1, 2, and 3 autism spectrum disorder. These terms supposedly describe the level of disability we experience, but again, are misleading. Functioning labels are intimately associated with one’s economic status. Those deemed low-functioning are classed as such because they are unlikely to ever be self-reliant, a key target of neoliberalism. Those deemed high-functioning are the ones whose quirks and outside-the-box thinking can be used by the economic system to drive profit and growth.

There are further issues with these labels for disability. Those Autistic people who are viewed as having higher support needs often live a life of limited autonomy with people around them assuming they can not contribute to their own lives, or that they would even want to. For those deemed as needing less support, it is often a life of struggle and traumatic self-reliance within a system not designed for them that can be expected.

But is autism actually a disabilty?

Simply put, yes. Regardless of what models of disability are used, or what amount of support a person might need, Autistic people experience disability related issues. This can come in the form of ableist discrimination, hate crime and & mate crime, improper accessibility to the environment, or issues that can not be accommodated for.

The problem is that disability has been situated as an inherently bad thing. The truth is that disability, much like autism, is neutral. It isn’t inherently good or bad, it is a fact of life. Some days we’ll feel better about it than others, some days will be harder than others. The idea that disability is a negative thing that needs to be removed from discourse around autism is ableism. We are positioning disability as something that harms our humanity.

In other words, avoiding the topic of disability inadvertently dehumanises disabled people, including Autistic people. This is why we need a more inclusive world, and it is why we need to normalise disabled embodiment from a young age.