Is Autism Considered a Disability?

Reviewed by:

September 7, 2022

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a diverse group of conditions related to the development of the brain, also known as a neurodevelopmental disorder. 

Autism affects about 1 in 44 children in the United States. ASD will look different for everyone. The term “spectrum” is used because people with ASD can experience a wide variety in the type of symptoms they experience and the severity of the symptoms. People with ASD may have social, communication, or behavioral challenges. Notably, decreased intellectual ability is not included as part of the diagnosis for ASD. A person with an intellectual disability has limits that affect their ability to learn and function in daily life. 

ASD is considered a developmental disability by many government and educational organizations. A developmental disability is a physical, learning, language, or behavioral impairment that may impact daily functioning. The extent to which developmental disabilities affect daily life varies from person to person. . Some people with autism may have impairments that affect their activities of daily living, but that doesn't mean everyone with autism is disabled. 

People with autism may have a different way of thinking and interacting with the world. This is called neurodiversity. These differences may not cause any impairment or difficulty by themselves. In many cases, the difficulty comes from the restrictions and barriers placed by society. 

Whether you see autism as a disability depends on which model of disability you view it.

Models of disability

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.”

There are different ways of thinking about disability. Two common models of disability are the medical model and the social model. In recent years, the neurodiversity approach to disability has gained support. 

Medical model of disability

In the medical model of disability, disability results from a physical condition and causes disadvantages to the disabled person. 

In this model, the focus is on fixing the disability to decrease or eliminate the disadvantages it might cause. People with autism may be required to conceal or mask their symptoms to seem neurotypical. This can lead to decreased overall well-being, depression, and anxiety. 

Social model of disability

In the social model of disability, a person may have impairments, but there is no disability without society imposing restrictions on individuals with these impairments.

In this model, a disability is an element of diversity. Disabilities should be addressed by removing barriers to the environment so that everyone can participate in the same way. When these barriers are removed, the benefits of diversity become apparent. 

In contrast to the medical model, the social model of disability strives for societal changes instead of changes by the individual. In this model, accommodations should be made for people with autism, so they have the same opportunities to participate as everyone. 

An example of how society may adapt to meet the needs of a person with autism are stores with special sensory-friendly hours. Many people with autism can feel overwhelmed by sensory stimuli, such as bright lights and loud noises. Some stores offer special hours with decreased lights and music to make the experience more comfortable for people with sensory sensitivities. 

In a classroom or work setting, there are several accommodations that can make sure people with autism have the same opportunities to learn and participate. Some examples include:

  • Classroom aides 
  • Peer mentors 
  • Decreasing distractions
  • Visual schedules and supports
  • Frequent breaks
  • Use of alternative media
  • Extra time to process information

Neurodiversity approach to disability 

The neurodiversity approach to disability builds on the social model. This approach considers autism a neurodivergence. In the same way that people can look different on the outside, brains work in different ways, and diverse minds should be valued. 

In this approach, the definition of disability is an interaction between the person with an impairment and the environment. The disability can be addressed through societal accommodations and changes in the individual. The choice of whether to make changes in the individual or the environment should be based on which intervention will be the most beneficial to the person with autism. 

Changes in the individual can include learning adaptive behaviors. Adaptive skills should not attempt to “normalize” the individual. Instead, the skills should help the person with autism cope with society when alternative adaptations are not possible. 

Adaptive skills can be learned through autism therapies, such as:

Conclusion

There are different ways of defining a disability. People with autism may have a different way of interacting with the world around them. These differences should be embraced, not changed to fit in with societal norms. A neurodiversity approach to autism provides a balance of societal accommodations and learned adaptive skills to overcome barriers of any impairment. 

‍Songbird Therapy is a technology-enabled provider setting a higher standard for children’s autism care. With a deeply passionate team and innovative technology, we’re building a world where every child can access world-class care at home, uniquely tailored to them.

Get started with care from Songbird — covered by insurance