I’ve often come across Autistic people who say, ‘I don’t see it as a disability.’
And then there are people who say they suffer from autism because they can’t get a job or they’ve been bullied.
In both cases I think the same thing: haven’t they heard of the social model? I don’t think enough people have.
The social model of disability is a way of thinking about disability in which disability results not from an individual’s neurological, physical or mental characteristics but from barriers created by society. The social model distinguishes between impairment, which is when someone has an unusually low ability to do something, and disability, which is when someone is prevented from full participation in society on the basis of an impairment. Society is built to accommodate the needs of the majority and not the needs of people with minority brains, bodies and minds. This is the way I use and understand the word ‘disability’.
In contrast, in the medical model of disability, all the problems a disabled person faces are a result of their impairment. Disability is often used synonymously with impairment or disorder.
An example is when a wheelchair user who can’t walk is unable to enter a public building that has stairs and no ramp. According to the social model, not being able to walk is an impairment, but the problem, the reason they can’t get in the building, is because they are disabled by a lack of wheelchair access. The solution is to make the building accessible. In the medical model, they can’t get in the building because of their mobility impairment and the solution is to do research to find a cure for it.
Autistic people are disabled. Many of us have an impaired ability to process sensory information, and we’re disabled by environments that cause sensory overload. We’re disabled by the way it’s socially acceptable to wear strong perfume that makes us feel ill but it’s not acceptable to cope with stress by rocking. We’re disabled when people don’t say what they mean and we don’t understand them. We’re also disabled when we are able to understand others’ language or function in a noisy environment but it costs us more energy than it costs allistic people. We can end up exhausted.
I don’t think autism should be called a disorder, because to me disorder means an illness or something that’s wrong. Autism isn’t an illness or something wrong with us, it’s the things that Autistic people share, and those things are part of who we are. It’s associated with impairments, and with struggles, but even impairments and struggles don’t make something a disorder. When my cat died my grief was painful and debilitating, but we don’t call grief a disorder because it’s considered normal and reasonable and acceptable. Autism should be considered normal and reasonable and acceptable. (The problems autism causes for me aren’t nearly as bad as losing a loved one.)
And Autism should exist because if it didn’t, Autistic people would not exist. All people should have the right to exist.
Opponents of neurodiversity sometimes describe is as the idea that autism is ‘just a brain difference’. I don’t know if many neurodiversity supporters actually think this, but I think it’s clear that autism isn’t just a difference. Autistic people have impairments, such as in language and sensory processing. We also share things that don’t impair us but are just different, such as stims that don’t harm us, how we don’t make eye contact, and our ways of communicating. We share things we’re good at, like attention to detail, and things that make us happy, like our special interests. But, significantly, we’re disabled.
The social model means that although Autistic people have a harder time than allistic people, and although we suffer, much of this isn’t a direct result of being Autistic, but is caused by external forces. It means the way to make life better for us is not to cure us or train us to act like we’re not autistic but to change the way society treats us.
When I found out about the social model I felt empowered because it means that many of the things I struggle with don’t originate from within me.
The Autistic people who say they’re not disabled frustrate me because they sound like they’re denying the existence of all the social barriers that make life difficult for Autistic people.
And it frustrates me when people blame autism for problems that are not caused by autism. The people who want to eliminate us could use this to justify their stance that autism causes suffering so it would be better if autism, and therefore Autistic people, didn’t exist.