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Autism: disability or difference? (part 1)

The notion of disability is quite ambiguous, isn’t it? It is just a category rather than an intrinsic attribute. At one point in my life I identified with the term to a degree, but never claimed it. Today, even though I have my bad moments, I could never see my autism as a disability.


Struggling

At one point I was very focused on my struggles and at times forgot about the distinct benefits of autism. In fact, there were many benefits I didn’t know I had.

As we all have only one subjective frame of reference and no other subjective experience we can compare our own to, it often takes years to figure out what—if any—advantages or different experiences we have. So both due to ignorance about my strengths and how to apply them as well as overidentifying with my struggles, I did at one point see my autism as a disability.

But that’s not quite fair, as autism comes with both challenges and advantages. Have a look at our Powers & Kryptonite page to check what advantages you may have.

I suspect most autistic people who are successful in their lives tend to focus on the advantages and thus be more inclined to see autism as a difference rather than a disability. So whether autism constitutes a difference or a disability depends in part on our subjective sense of struggle, and the limitations we experience in life on account of our neurology. Actually, not just our neurology/psychology, but its interplay with society. Because our limitations are not just imposed on ourselves by our brain wiring, but also by other people and lack of accommodations.


Strengths

But it’s not really fair to describe autism as a disability even in my own life, because the benefits just might outweigh the drawbacks; if there were a pill that could “cure” autism (i.e. change my brain wiring), I would not even consider taking it. Not only because it would undermine who I am, but also because my way of thinking is not only different, but undeniably beneficial in many ways.

There are a few considerations to make here. First of all, every autistic person is different, and so they all have their own strengths and weaknesses; there is a lot of variety to be found here.


Circumstantial

But it is also largely a matter of how one’s life is structured; many autistic people can function well in their jobs and personal life, and don’t experience their autism as a disorder. In fact, many people may not even know they are autistic. Like you, for example, Natalie. You have worked with autistics before and you have a sibling with autism and yet it never dawned on you that you may be autistic, because the benefits work well for you in your career.

But given different life circumstances, they may not function as well, and will likely perceive their autism differently. If you experience constant anxiety in a highly sensorily stimulating environment, it is obviously going to be harder to see your autism as anything but limiting and undermining your quality of life.


Difference or disability

Whether autism is a difference or a disability depends on various things. I alluded to a few, but let me summarize the ones I can think of right now:

  • Our level of functioning in life (circumstantial and cultural).
  • Our sense of wellbeing in life (subjective and circumstantial).
  • Our neurology and psychology (arguments based on observation and categorization).
  • Our way of categorizing things and application of terms (semantics and philosophy).

If you know of others, I am eager to hear them!


Even when I was struggling tremendously in life and experienced suicidal ideation, for some reason I never thought of myself as disabled. I can’t really pin down why that is, while someone else may strongly identify with the term.

Autism encompasses a broad spectrum of experiences, so whether you experience autism as debilitating may or may not be relevant to whether you see autism as a disability. You may insist autism is a difference irrespective of suffering, and you may insist autism is a disability irrespective of how happy and successful some autistic people may be. Important to remember is not only that there is diversity in experience, but diversity in opinions as well. I don’t see my autism as a disability, but I understand that some others do.


Continued in Autism: disability or difference? (part 2)

Categorization, Deficits, Disability, Gifts, Labeling, Mental disorders, Neurodivergence, Talents


Martin Silvertant

Martin Silvertant

Co-founder of Embrace ASD, autism researcher, writer, ironically silver award-winning graphic designer, and type designer. I am also autistic, and I fight dodecahedragons during sleep onset.

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