Is autism a disability or is it a difference?
There are many ways of thinking and talking about autism and the answers to these questions will depend on who you ask.
Here are some of the different ways of thinking about autism and disability.
You can decide which fits you best!
- Organisations like the National Autistic Society describe autism as a developmental disability. Disability is when someone is less able to do the things they want or need to do. Some people think that autism is a disability because sometimes, they are less able to do the things that they want to do. An example is when someone really wants to go to a party, but they can’t go because the loud music is too painful for them or because they feel too worried about being in a room with lots of strangers.
- Some people think that autism is a disability but this is not because they are less able. It is because the world is not set up for autistic people. They say that autistic people would not be disabled if the world was designed with their needs in mind. The physical world or other people can stop autistic people from doing the things they want or need to do. For example, some autistic young people are disabled at school because they can’t cope with the busy corridors. However, they would not be disabled if there were fewer people in the corridors or if the corridors were much wider and quieter. This way of thinking is known as the social model of disability.
- Some autistic people do not see themselves as disabled at all. This is because they can do the things they want to do. They see autism as a set of differences that do not get in the way of them living the life they want to live.
- Neurodiversity is a word that means all ways of thinking and acting are valuable. Being autistic might make you think or act in ways that are different to non-autistic people but differences should be welcomed as they contribute to the rich diversity of human beings. Like all people, autistic people have a right to be accepted for who they are. It is fine to believe strongly in the value of neurodiversity and still consider yourself to be disabled.
- From the point of view of the law, autism is classed as a disability. This is important because it gives autistic people protections under the law. A law called The Equality Act states that services, like schools or hospitals, must not discriminate against disabled people, including autistic people. This means that they have to do what they can to make sure autistic people have equal access to these services.
- In medical terms, autism is classed as a ‘neurodevelopmental disorder’. Many people dislike the term ‘disorder’ because it makes it sound as though something is wrong with autistic people. It is therefore good to avoid this word.
You can learn more about the social model of disability here.
Writing led by kathy leadbitter, Researcher at the University of Manchester
A personal view
Some parts of the world feel like they aren’t designed for autistic people. When I was at school, I found it REALLY hard to try and sit still all day, because I am someone who needs to move all the time. I also struggled with the bright lights and loud sounds.
As an adult, I have a lot more freedom:
- I am able to move around whenever I like
- If it is bright I can wear a hood or sunglasses
- If it is loud I can wear headphones, or just leave the loud space.
I wasn’t allowed to do any of these things when I was in school.
I believe in the social model of disability. I am not disabled by being autistic, but I am disabled by being in places or being around people that aren’t suited to me.
When I am in a space that works for me, I am able to focus on my strengths. I am a deep thinker and I love solving complex problems. I can also be REALLY productive if I am doing something I am interested in. However, even in the right environment, I will continue to struggle with some things:
- I feel emotions very strongly, so I can find them overwhelming at times in comparison to most people, especially if I think I have upset someone..
- My brain NEVER STOPS. This is a strength during the day, but difficult at night time, as it makes sleep a lot harder for me.
- I find it really, really hard to do things that I don’t find interesting, even if they are really important.
But the truth is, everyone on the planet has strengths and things they find difficult. My strengths and difficulties may just be different to the majority of people.
In this video, David discusses whether or not autism is a disability.
Video by David Gray-Hammond, Independent advocate