Autistic Author, Artist, Advocate, and Speaker

Is Autism a Disability? Are Autistics Disabled? (Are These the Same Question?)

sketch sparrow

[image description: a photo of a middle-aged transmasculine person in a van, half-rendered into a sketch, using the Heisenberg setting in Prisma, turned down to 54%. Copyright 2016, Sparrow R. Jones]

I don’t like to engage in serious conversations on Twitter because I’m so quickly overwhelmed by the format, but yesterday I ended up in a corner of a discussion that spread throughout much of the Twitter Autistic community, as evidenced by this other excellent blog post addressing a different aspect of the conversation: Autism does not reside in a medical report.

My corner of the conversation centered around the question of whether autism is a disability or not. The same person who stirred Sonia Boue to write the excellent post linked above got into it with one of my Twitter contacts on a different but related topic:

Tweet by Grit Tokley

[image description: A twitter exchange. Grit Tokley writes: “I’m well aware of the social model of disability, and I don’t considering autism to be a disability in any sense, tyvm. @aspiemermaid” Autistic Elf (Aspiemermaid) responds: “@GritTokley ok. So why are you so hung up on getting it medically diagnosed?”]

So, here I am, unpacking the social model (and a couple of other models) of disability and discussing the questions: Is autism a disability? and Why does it matter whether it is or not?

Because, of course, the bulk of the following Twitter discussion centered around strong assertions that autism is not a disability, along with strong assertions that everyone is entitled to their own opinion and we must all agree to disagree


So, with that.

Three Models of Disability

There are many different models of disability, but I would like to focus in on three of them as being the most mainstream and/or the most useful for various groups of people.

The Medical Model of Disability

This is the most mainstream model of disability and the one you’re most likely to have seen before. One participant in the Twitter discussion shared this definition of disability that pretty well sums up the nicest version of the medical model you are ever likely to see:

medical model disability

[image description: a white background with black text reading: “Disability is an impairment that may be physical, cognitive, intellectual, mental, sensory, developmental, or some combination of these that results in restrictions on an individual’s ability to participate in what is considered “normal” in their everyday society.”

It’s sweet of them to put the word normal in quotes. Even with that nod, the medical model is basically saying that disability is entirely contained in the person identified as disabled. It’s all on you if you have impairments that restrict you. If you’re lucky, people will have a little decency and put some ramps in front of government buildings or braille placards on elevators, but mostly you just have to accept that you’re not normal and be grateful for what crumbs people toss your way. After all, you can’t expect everyone to go to the trouble and expense of making special accommodations just for you, right? Where would we be if we had to accommodate everyone’s impairments?

That’s the medical model and that’s why so many disabled people reject that definition of disability. But it’s still a really popular definition. And, as the person who shared the image pointed out, by this definition, autism is quite clearly a disability. Something like 99.9% of the Autistics you will meet have at least one of some kind of sensory issue that makes life difficult if/when they encounter sensory assaults (or situations in which they require extra sensory stimulation in order to stay regulated.) By definition, we are developmentally disabled, whether you use the medical model’s terminology (developmental delay) or recognize our development as being on a different trajectory from the mainstream. It’s pretty clear that, within the medical model we are disabled.

The Social Model of Disability

This is the model I see most often in the Autistic activist community. The social model was developed in the 1970s by British disability theorists who did not appreciate the way the medical model dumps all responsibility for disability and accommodations thereof in the laps of disabled people. The social model was a great improvement over the medical model, particularly in the area of human rights.

The social model posits that disability does not actually exist. Those states of being that are labeled as “disability” are natural variations in the human condition and all human beings require support and accommodation from society in order to survive. For example: you probably eat food that someone else grew, someone else processed and/or packaged, someone else drove to your region in a truck using fuel gathered and processed by someone else, driving on roads built by others and paid for collectively through taxation. All of the steps and people required to get food to the supermarket, farmer’s market, soup kitchen, restaurant, institutional kitchen or whatever location it is where you go to feed yourself are supports and accommodations that society approves of and works hard to keep in place.

When the need is a mainstream one, the supports and accommodations are called “infrastructure.” When the need is a divergent one, the supports and accommodations are called accessibility measures. According to the social model, “disability” is a social construct and “disabled” is what society is doing to you if it decides that the supports and accommodations you require are too much trouble and you are not worth the expenditure of time, energy, money, and other resources that would be required to make society accessible to someone like you.

Within the social model of disability, Autistics are disabled (by a society that does not value Autistics sufficiently to support and accommodate us) but autism is not a disability because disability does not exist, being merely a social construct that makes it convenient for those who would like to disable us without feeling guilty about it.

The Social-Relational Model of Disability

Finally, we have my favorite model of disability, the social-relational model. The social-relational model is less well-known, having only been developed in the 21st century, by disability theorist Solveig Reindal1. The need for the social-relational model was clear before Reindal wrote about it, though, and I’ve also noticed some people who are unaware of Reindal’s work trying to re-shape the social model into something closer to Reindal’s vision, due to dissatisfaction with the social model. No need to re-shape the social model, though, when the social-relational model already exists.

The major dissatisfaction activists and theorists were finding with the social model was that disabled people could not express any dissatisfaction with the experience of being disabled without being viewed as “traitors to the theory.”2. Reindal’s new formulation of the social-relational model moves to a third position in which society is still held accountable for disabling people but theory does not ignore the body or the real struggles some people have with disability, independent of society’s support and accommodations or lack thereof.

While the social model claimed that disability does not exist, being purely a social construct evolving out of views of those constructed as disabled as being “lesser” in some way, Reindal acknowledged that those who are identified as disabled do, indeed, have some type of impairment. These impairments – what the medical model calls “disability” – Reindal labeled as “barriers to doing.” In contrast to impairment, Reindal writes about “being disabled” as it is defined by the social model as the “barrier to being,” suggesting that the social constructs that view those with impairments as lesser beings, not worthy of inclusion or accommodation, creates an existential crisis that extends deeply into the disabled person’s core being.

Within the social-relational model, I have impairments (although not all Autistics have social-relational impairments, according to what others have told me) and I am disabled by society’s lack of support and accommodation for my needs. I have a disability and I am disabled. I have barriers to doing, which I find frustrating, and I have barriers to being, which I find devastating.

Why Is All This Important?

If you have read this far, you may be asking yourself why any of this matters. As an old friend used to say, “how will this help me shop for groceries?”

This is important because these are not just words and theories. This is important because these different frameworks for viewing people’s lives are the structures that underlie how we are treated, what assistance we get or do not get, even whether people feel we have sufficient humanity and “quality of life” to deserve to continue living. It is very important to understand these seemingly academic topics, because these sorts of thoughts are beneath the doctors’ attempts to deny Mel Baggs a feeding tube to keep Mel alive. These thoughts are behind the choice of those administering the transplant registries to deny Paul Corby a spot on the heart transplant list.

These questions and ideas and words are not just exercises in navel-gazing. They are the basis upon which life-or-death decisions are made about us. Too often these decisions are made without us, because the operating definition of disability/disabled is one that places us in an infantilized position where we are not considered able even to advocate for ourselves.

When I turned to my Facebook friends and asked how they felt about the question of whether autism is a disability or not, I got an overwhelming flood of responses — there were over 200 responses to the question. That discussion really helped me in shaping my thoughts about the rather distressing day I had on Twitter and the nature of disability/being disabled.

Two comments in particular resonated very strongly with me. I found them both thought-provoking and comforting after all the Twitter distress.

Cas Faulds said: “our current society and our current systems means that we are disabled and if we’re working under the impression that we aren’t, we’re setting ourselves up for failure.”

That’s very important. Denying that we are disabled (which I see a lot of Autistics doing these days) runs the risk of setting ourselves up for failure when we decide that there is no real difference between Autistic and non-autistic. This opens the door for the struggle I’ve faced most of my life, believing I kept failing because I just wasn’t trying hard enough. Understanding that I am disabled has helped me to forgive myself for those very real things I just can’t do — whether due to inherent impairment or being disabled by society.

No matter how “disabled” is philosophically constructed, I am definitely disabled and acknowledging that fact gives me the space to re-frame situations and figure out accommodations, whether self-accommodations or accommodations I request from others.

My friend, Chris, said: “there’s an immense spectrum, from not disabling to severely disabling, and someone pretending their end is the only one that should be called “autism” — well that’s pinging ME really hard as supremacism.”

Yes! The people who kept telling me that autism is not a disability and Autistics are not disabled said that I would hurt the image of autism by insisting that it is a disability or that Autistics are disabled. I felt very excluded and erased because I am quite disabled.

When the discussion was framed in terms of division and supremacism, the first thing I thought of was Michael John Carley’s distress about dropping Asperger’s from the DSM because he didn’t want to be mistaken for someone with more challenges.

The people on Twitter might be right. It might just be a matter of opinion. It might be that autism is not a disability (“but you can call yourself disabled if you want to.”) It might be that we should just all “agree to disagree.”

But I think we should tread carefully on declaring that autism is not a disability when there are so many of us who are so very clearly disabled., regardless of which model of disability one chooses. I know that I would rather be mistaken for “somebody who might have to wear adult diapers and maybe a head-restraining device” (to quote Carley) than throw my Autistic siblings under a philosophical bus because my support needs are different from theirs.

So….my stance? Autism is a disability. Autistics are disabled. Society needs to work harder to support and accommodate us all, in all our variety, with all our different types and levels of support needs. We are human beings, expressing part of the infinite diversity humans express in infinite combinations. Accept us. Support us. Value us. The fact that we are disabled only means that society needs to think more carefully and work more diligently to craft an accessible world we all can live in, together.

1. Reindal, Solveig Magnus. 2008. “A Social Relational Model of Disability: A Theoretical Framework for Special Needs Education?” European Journal of Special Needs Education 23 (2): 135-46.

2. Shakespeare, Tom, and Nicholas Watson. 2002. “The Social Model of Disability: An Outdated Ideology?” Research in Social Science and Disability 2: 9-28.
Thomas, Pam, Lorraine Gradwell, and Natalie Markham. 1997. “Defining Impairment within the Social Model of Disability.” Coalition Magazine July.


  1. Kate

    My 14 yo son said it succinctly. It is not us with any issue; it is others who fail to accept us for who we are. In his way, he is trying to explain the third model you present.

    There is a quote attributed to Einstein that alludes to a fish being considered stupid (etc) if it is expected to climb a tree. Would it not be easier, cheaper, more beneficial long term to allow us to be us, and not some malabled copy?

    Thank you for yet another thought provoking post. (You really ought to consider a PhD!)

    • unstrangemind

      That’s the second model – the Social Model – that he’s explaining.

      I really wish Einstein had said that about the fish. It’s a lovely quote. I always end up kind of grumbling when I see it, because the layers of myth and untruth that have been spread over Einstein are irritating to me. But yes, you are exactly right that we are wired differently and excel best when we are permitted and encouraged to work with our wiring, not against it.

      I am almost a D.A. (Doctor of Arts.) There was no accommodation for my hypermychthemeral syndrome so I had to drop out after ten years of university work. I’m on a different life trajectory now and actually kind of glad to have escaped academia. I encountered some of the worst, most toxic bullying as an adult at university.

      • Kate

        Bahahaha! Interesting. I’m an academic drop out. I left my PhD 3/4 finished. I had a gut full of academia as well. Anthropologists are often the most unaccepting people, which is ironic given their desire to know the ‘Other’. It never really made sense to me why I just dropped out til I got my Dx this year.

        Your history in academia is evident in the clarity of your writing. I’m quite in awe (and envious) because I often felt frustrated that I was misunderstood, especially verbally. All that just turned me away from speaking in depth to anyone. My brain is so much more intelligent than my communication allows for. C’est la vie! I leave it to you to speak in my stead.

  2. Scott Morizot

    Thanks for these thoughts. I’m not particularly familiar with the different models of disability. It’s not my field and I never had much reason to think or learn about the topic before this year. But your reaction to this echoes some of my own, which I tried to capture in what I wrote. I’m still learning to forgive myself for the things that are hard for me and all the times I’ve “failed” over the course of my life. In many ways, those still loom larger than my successes.

    And as someone born in 1965 and only diagnosed earlier this year, I know what it’s like to grow up in a world that didn’t even have a way to describe my struggles. I had no idea that others even shared them. When people say that autism shouldn’t even be a diagnosis at all, I see a return to that world. And I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

    So I agree. Autism is a disability. And autistic people are disabled. The scope of the disability and our ability to manage it varies from person to person. I actually like the way the current DSM criteria distinguish those differences according to the level of support required. Reading back over the previous diagnostic criteria in earlier versions, I think that’s definitely an improvement. I’m definitely not interested in throwing other autistic people under the philosophical bus either.

    And even in some hypothetical ideal world that truly did all it could to accommodate autistic people, the social interaction aspects would still be disabling to some degree. There are simply differences in the ways non-autistic people and autistic people communicate and interact. And those differences are challenging to cross from either direction. And since we are a pretty small minority, much of that will always fall on us. Similarly, our difficulty with change, tendency to perseverate, negative impacts on executive functioning, and other differences would remain challenges in any context. I can mostly manage my sensory issues, and many of mine are hyposensitivities as opposed to hypersensitivities, so that may help as well, but as you mention they are a significant challenge for many of us.

    I’m not sure I understand why so many appear to find the idea of disability stigmatizing rather than descriptive.

    Anyway, thanks again.

  3. tagÂûght

    Okay, I think your blog is going to be the source of the next month’s worth of “Recommendations” on my blog! Another interesting, thought-provoking piece, and thank you for informing me/us about the Social-Relational Model – I’m going to check out those links when I get the chance! (Never having heard of it before – time to signal boost!) Because you’re right, we are disabled. It’s something that does need to be recognized.

    So thank you.

    • unstrangemind

      Thank you. You are so kind!

  4. Dee

    I would say that autism is a category of traits, some of which are disabilities and some of which are NOT necessarily disabilities and can even be considered strengths.

    For example, having a “special interest” is not a disability and can even be a strength, especially if one can turn it into a career, or if one can successfully build one’s social life around it.

    On the other hand, being unable to drive safely due to extreme difficulty multitasking (as is the case for some though not all autistics) is a disability.

    In my opinion, autism is too heterogeneous a category to be called a disability in itself. I think it would be more accurate to say that autism entails various disabilities, with different autistic people having different specific disabilities.

    • unstrangemind

      In the medical model, what you say is entirely true. I prefer the social-relational model, however, in which disability is not synonymous with impairment.

      Not having the sensory equipment, executive function, etc. required to drive a car is an *impairment*. But a person who has no actual impairments can still be disabled because it is not our impairments that disable us but rather societal attitudes about human value and accommodations that disables us.

      People who assume “autism” means “incompetent” are disabling us with their attitudes. The school that told my friend he could not take classes to become an EMT, despite being highly qualified to enter that profession, simply because of his autism diagnosis with no regard for his actual pattern of strengths and weakness disabled him.

      Simply disclosing an autism diagnosis/identity changes how people treat us and what people are and aren’t willing to do for or with us. That is highly disabling. Autism is a disability in the social-relational model of disability (and one of the biggest reasons is that the medical model of autism encourages society to view us as bundles of deficits and impairments rather than the complex and multi-faceted human beings with individual patterns of strengths and weaknesses that we actually are.)

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