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.