Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), or autism, is a neurodevelopmental condition. It affects a person’s ability to learn, communicate, and interact with others.
From medical and legal standpoints, autism is a disability. But according to mental health professionals, not everyone with autism identifies as being disabled.
Here, we’ll examine autism as a disability from medical, legal, and self-identification perspectives.
What is autism?
Autism is a group of neurological and developmental conditions. The symptoms, which often appear in childhood, can vary in type and severity.
There are no medical tests, such as blood or imaging tests, that can help experts diagnose autism. Instead, doctors examine a person’s behavior and development.
If the person’s symptoms meet certain criteria, the doctor will make a diagnosis.
When speaking about disability, it’s important to be mindful of language. That’s because certain words can perpetuate negative connotations about people and their experiences. Specifically, the current social model of disability suggests it’s something to be “fixed” or “cured.” It also implies people with disabilities are unable to lead fulfilling and successful lives. Fortunately, it’s possible to dispel these notions by thinking about how we speak about disabilities. For more guidance, read our guide on talking with people with disabilities and health conditions.
In order to understand the different perspectives of autism, it helps to know the difference between “disorder” and “disability.”
A disorder is a health condition that affects the typical function of the mind or body. Specifically, a mental disorder involves cognitive, emotional, and behavioral issues.
From a medical perspective, autism is a mental disorder. This is due to the neurological, psychological, and social impacts it can have on one’s life, says Keischa Pruden, LCMHCS, LCAS, CCS, psychotherapist and founder of Pruden Counseling Concepts.
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Autism is considered to be a disability. That’s because its symptoms can make it difficult for a person to navigate neurotypical norms.
How is autism a medical disability?
“Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability, meaning it’s caused by differences in the development of the brain,” explains Matthew Edelstein, PsyD, BCBA-D, psychologist at Choosing Therapy. Typically, this causes delays in learning and development.
In general, autistic people experience:
- difficulties with social communication and interaction
- restricted or repetitive behaviors or interests
- delayed language, movement, cognitive, or learning skills
- difficulty paying attention
For autistic people, these characteristics can make it difficult to interact in school, work, and other social environments. As a result, it’s considered to be a medical disability.
It’s important to note that the characteristics of autism vary in type and severity. There’s a spectrum of symptoms.
The degree of disability will depend on the type and severity of these symptoms.
From a legal perspective, autism is classified as a disability.
This means autistic people are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA is a law, not a program. This means there’s no need to apply for coverage or benefits.
Sharon Kaye-O’Connor, LCSW, psychotherapist at Choosing Therapy, explains that autistic people are legally entitled to various benefits. This includes reasonable accommodations at school and in the workplace.
According to Kaye-O’Connor and Pruden, accommodations may include:
- sensory support (like auditory trainers)
- adjustments to the environment (like smaller classes)
- flexibility of location (like working from home)
- modified schedules
- individualized instruction outside of class
Depending on the support needed, some people might also be eligible for disability benefits. These include social security, Medicaid, and support of a caregiver, Kaye-O’Connor says.
From medical and legal perspectives, autism is considered a disability. But when it comes to self-identification, this isn’t always the case.
In other words, some autistic people identify as being disabled, while others don’t. This may depend on several factors:
Level of support needed
According to Pruden, people who require many types of support might see themselves as being disabled.
In contrast, there are people who “may need less support [and] do not see themselves as disabled,” Pruden says.
A person’s environment also affects whether they identify as disabled. As Kaye-O’Connor explains, “the environment can play a huge role in determining our comfort and ability to thrive.”
For instance, some people might identify with the social model of disability. They might also feel that their challenges are due to living in an environment that wasn’t created with neurodivergent needs in mind, according to Kaye-O’Connor.
Changing social perspectives
The narrative around neurodiversity and autism is changing. As Pruden notes, there’s a growing group of children and adults who view their autism as a superpower, rather than a limitation.
These people “also selflessly advocate for themselves and others to be seen as capable and accepted, autism and all,” Pruden says.
“Every person with autism is unique in their own way, and they’re free to identify in whatever way it feels best,” Edelstein adds. For example, “many high-functioning individuals with ASD prefer to identify in terms of their personal strengths rather than their weaknesses.”
Again, being mindful of language can help support these more positive perspectives.
“Neurodiversity” refers to the range of neurological differences. “Neurodivergence” describes neurological traits that differ from what’s considered typical, or neurotypical.
If a child is on a spectrum, it’s important to speak with them about their own neurodivergence. This will help them understand their own needs in different environments. It will also ensure they feel supported, accepted, and cared for.
When speaking with your child about their own neurodivergence, Pruden believes in being honest. She suggests sharing information in a way that’s appropriate to their age and development.
Tips for talking about neurodivergence
If you’re a parent of a child on the spectrum, Pruden recommends discussing their own neurodivergence using the following script:
“You are such an awesome individual. Remember when we took you to (insert professional’s name) because we had some concerns about (insert symptoms here)? Well, it turns out you have a wiring issue. Your brain is wired differently from other folks. That doesn’t make you bad, unworthy, or (insert other negative adjectives that may have been used to describe your child). It just means your brain works differently. Now, (insert names of parents, caretakers, or professionals) are going to help you live a fun life. There will be some challenges, but you have support.”
For older kids, you can also explain neurodivergence in terms of “operating systems,” like Windows and MacOS on computers.
As Kaye-O’Connor explains: “Neither operating system is incorrect; they just work differently. And just as there are different types of operating systems for computers, there are different types of brains. Each type of brain has its own set of strengths, challenges, and needs.”
When explained in this manner, autism can be framed as a different way of functioning rather than a “problem.”
Autistic people are eligible for various government disability benefits in the United States. These benefits are available on a state and federal basis.
State government benefits for autism
According to Edelstein, many states offer a Medicaid waiver. This is a program for people with developmental disabilities.
The exact benefits vary by state, but they often include:
- financial aid
- access to healthcare
- in-home support
You can typically find these resources on your state’s health agency website.
Federal government benefits for autism
According to Edelstein, autistic people can receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI). This is a federal benefit program for low-income people with disabilities, regardless of age, Edelstein says.
Adults who have worked in the past can also receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).
You can apply for SSI and SSDI on each program’s website.
Autism is considered a disability from a medical and legal standpoint. According to these perspectives, the condition makes it difficult for a person to interact with their environment. As a result, autistic people are eligible for various disability benefits.
However, not all people on the spectrum self-identify as being disabled. A person’s self-identification depends on many factors, including their degree of limitations and level of support they need.
It’s important to be mindful when speaking about autism and other health conditions. Even if a person on the spectrum identifies as disabled, it doesn’t mean they need to be “cured.”
If you or a loved one has autism, a mental health professional can help you navigate the condition.