Autism in the social model of disability

Published on 2024-01-13

Someone I know (who is autistic, for what it's worth) asserted to me today that they don't think autism qualifies as a disability. Well, I suppose they didn't explicitly say "I don't think autism is a disability." Somewhat importantly, they said that they think framing autism as a disability is a really, really bad thing, like something you really should not do.

I thought a lot about this, even though I didn't have the energy to engage them on it. So, now you, dear reader, get to hear my thoughts on autism's relationship to disability instead.

I don't know exactly why this person thinks it's a really really bad to think of autism as a disability. I usually avoid calling autism a disability, and most people I encounter like to tread carefully on the subject, but I've never encountered someone who's downright against it like this before. So I don't know why, but I do have what I think is a pretty good guess:

Neurotypical people have this idea that autism is kind of like a disease that needs to be cured. Autistic people, myself included, often like to push back on that. Autism is a lot of things, but it's not really a bad thing, and it certainly doesn't need to be cured. Autistic people have different access needs than neurotypical people, and the idea that everyone who doesn't always fit squarely into the structures we design for the most average few needs to be rectified is very obviously in the larger tradition of the intersectionally normal, liberal hegemony's weirdly eugenicist worldview of how to build a competent society. This world they're building is inequitable. It's as simple as that.

This would make a lot of sense, but as far as I'm concerned, this alone isn't a good enough reason to be vehemently opposed to calling autism a disability. Here's why:

Autism is disabling! Or at least, it can be. For all the things that make being autistic really cool, it fucking sucks having to hide whenever things get too loud, or being deeply disturbed by textures you regularly encounter in life, or never knowing the right thing to say to a particular person, or or or or... It makes getting a job hard. It makes making food hard. It makes interacting with people hard. It's not easy. And that's kind of what I think it means to be disabled: you have a hard time doing things you're socially expected to do, be that having small talk with a stranger or applying for your driver's license.

The important thing to consider here is that none of these problems are caused by being autistic. Or rather, if they are, then that's an inherently toxic way of understanding how autistic people relate to the world. For that matter, that's an inherently toxic way of understanding how any disabled person relates to the world.

When a person who relies on mobility aids can't get into their place of work, whose fault is it? On one hand, you could choose to believe they're a fundamentally damaged person, and that their inability to get to work is a personal failing. If that's the case, then as a society, you're probably going to want to find some way to "fix" the problem of there being people who need mobility aids to get around. On the other hand, you could see that the person's place of work actively, willingly made the decision to establish in a building that is designed to make it impossible to enter for certain employees. They have declared to those employees: "You are not welcome here."

I don't think either case is inherently less "true" in an abstract sense; it's just that choosing to believe the latter means you value the needs of diverse people, and choosing the former means you're an asshole, and at least a bit of a eugenicist.

This is the difference between the medicalized and social models of disability.

If you follow the medicalized model of disability, then I can absolutely see why you wouldn't want to think of autism as a disability: societies following that model treat their disabled people like shit! We don't want them thinking those things about us!

If you follow the social model of disability, then it seems pretty obvious to me that autism is a disability. We are disabled not by autism, but by a society that refuses to accommodate us.

I would probably never come right out and say "autism is a disability" without giving about this much context immediately afterwards, because it's a pretty nuanced problem that doesn't fit safely into a soundbite. I do, however, say things like "autism can be disabling" often enough, because autism can be disabling.

Autism can be disabling, and being disabled is more of a reflection on one's society's failure to accommodate the natural diversity of human experience than one's own inability to do the things that society expects of them.

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