There’s a common misconception that Autism itself is a disability. While this is unequivocally false, it’s understandable where the idea came from.
Most people have watched a meltdown some well-intentioned parent posted on social media. Many autistic children are non- or only semi-verbal. And the archaic concept of “mental age” is still used to judge an autistic person’s mental competency.
Autism Is Sort Of A Disability
Autism does present some disabling facets and several learning and neurological disabilities co-occur along with the disorder. However, we first need to unpack why common manifestations of Autism (such as the examples listed above) are not signs of learning disabilities.
Ah, the vaunted Autistic Meltdown™! The bane of every autism parent’s existence. Recordings of meltdowns (almost never obtained with the autistic person’s consent) are often used by parents as video evidence of how broken their child is and how hard their lives are.
Parents will point to the footage and yell, “See, see! This poor child is disabled!” But might I pose a question?
Have you ever broken down and cried? Maybe a loved one died? Maybe, the bills piled up and it overwhelmed you? Or maybe, you pulled several all-nighters in a vain attempt to conquer a vicious workload in college. I’m willing to bet you have.
Now, picture at that valuable moment, someone shoved a camera in your face and screamed, “See, see! This poor adult is disabled!” Then, posted it on social media without your consent. How would you feel?
Meltdowns are not our default. They only occur at our worst, most overwhelmed and most exhausted moments. Just as it would be unfair for your functioning level to be judged by your low point, it’s unfair to judge ours by our meltdowns.
Because speech has been the default method of human communication for about 10,000 years, it’s no surprise that a lack of speech is considered disabling.
But a person’s cognitive ability isn’t defined by an inability to communicate in a preferred method. If you moved to a foreign country and couldn’t speak the language would that make you learning disabled?
Once offered alternative forms of communications, such as AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) devices or sign language, many autistic children demonstrate an at-grade or near communication ability.
I’m sure you’ve heard it before, “Little Johnny with Autism is 7 years old, but only has a mental age of 2.” Mental Age is a short-hand for an autistic person’s level of speech, academic proficiency, and Executive Functioning relative to their age.
As we’ve already discussed, a lack of speech isn’t an indicator of disability.
Academic proficiency is difficult to register for a number of reasons including, the quality of school, how good the child is at standardized tests, and how the child feels on the day of testing.
Metal Age also fails as a measurement, due to differences in societal expectations and a lack of consideration of socio-economics. For example, it’s common for children from low-income households to struggle with reading well into their third and fourth years of school.
For some reason that no one has yet to figure out, Autism likes to roll with an entourage. Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, Dysgraphia, Hyperacusis, and Down Syndrome are just a few of a long list of legitimate learning disabilities that co-occur with Autism.
The majority of struggles autistic people face are due to co-occurring disabilities. Most of the rest is due to environmental factors.
The Medical VS. Social Model Of Disability
This debate has raged for decades across the medical, psychological, sociological, and disabled communities and is something this article will not be going in-depth with.
Here’s what you need to know:
- The Medical Model Of Disability is the default. It assumes someone is disabled because of some hindrance on their ability to function disabled in a way their society defines as “normal.”
- The Social Model Of Disability assumes that a person is disabled by their environment. (For example, a wheelchair is only disabled by a lack of ramps and elevators).
Autistic people often have sensory sensitivities and alternate ways of information processing. When our needs are not met, it can appear that we are learning disabled. Our struggle to adapt to a world not built for us leads to increased frequencies of meltdowns and burnout.
Join the discussion 6 Comments
This was not helpful. As the grandmother who raised and still lives with a violent autistic man sometimes I fear for my life. He has broken all the wallboard in the house as well as all chairs and most items. You look at it from the outside and don’t live with it everyday.
The writer of this article is clearly autistic and there for DOES live with autism every day! If your grandson is violently hitting out at walls and breaking furniture then it’s because he’s trying to tell you and maybe other people around him that someone or something in his environment or life is negatively affecting his brain. If you and/or they ignor this and don’t listen to and try to understand him then he will continue to behave violently until you do. Has he ever hit you or any other person? If not, then thar’s most likely because he knows that violence towards people is wrong and doesn’t want to hurt anyone. However, he does want to listened to and understood and if that’s not happening then he’ll hit out at things until he is. He’s trying to tell you something and if you care about him you need to listen and try to figure out what that is. I say this as an autistic man myself and who’s exhibited similar behavior as your grandson. However, I’m never violent towards other people and I actually hate violence. However, because your grandson and I live in a world that isn’t built and mostly doesn’t cater for our needs we sometimes feel overwhelmed and unable to cope. Therefore, we let out this pent up energy on things or objects. However, if people listen to, respect, and help us then tbis enables us to calm down, feel more at peace, and be happier. I hope this helps
As an autistic person myself, this article is insulting… Autism is a disability, it’s not a misconception. The majority of struggles autistic people face ARE due to their autism. I don’t know if you’re autistic or not, but either way, you’re spreading misinformation. By saying autism isn’t a disability it’s like you’re allowing us to not have our needs met. Autism IS a disability and that’s OK, there’s nothing wrong with being disabled.
Also, I’m gonna add some things that I didn’t cover in my first comment. Of course, you CAN be autistic and still identify as non-disabled (not sure why), everyone on the spectrum is different and experiences autism very differently. On that note, you also can’t just shove your beliefs towards people and say “I’m right so listen to me”, because again, everyone experiences autism differently. For me, I have higher support needs than most autistic people. And my high support needs are because of my autism, so that means autism is a disability in my case. However, if someone on the spectrum doesn’t need that much support, then it’s ok if they identify themselves as able-bodied. But either way, autism is still a disability, since it’s literally in the DM-5 and is also a diagnosis.
ALSO ALSO, you saying that the lack of speech isn’t a disability is actually stupid-
It’s like saying someone with a prosthetic limb isn’t disabled, even though they are most certainly disabled. This article is laughable at this point. I’m probably gonna add more comments to this horrid piece of text, because this is just…. pain….
Also, for my second reply on it, I meant to say DSM-5, not DM-5, a small typo i was urging to fix.