Is autism a disability? Medical, societal and legal perspectives

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), or autism, is a neurodevelopmental disorder. It affects a person’s ability to learn, communicate and interact with others.

In the USA, 1 in 44 children have autism. It often appears before the age of 2 years. However, it can be diagnosed at any time of life, including adulthood.

From a medical and legal perspective, autism is a disability. But according to mental health professionals, not all people with autism identify as having a disability.

Here we will look at autism as a disability from a medical, legal, and self-identification perspective.

What is autism?

Autism is a group of neurological and developmental diseases. Symptoms, which often appear in childhood, can vary in type and severity.

There are no medical tests, such as blood or imaging tests, that can help experts diagnose autism. Instead, doctors examine a person’s behavior and development.

If the person’s symptoms meet certain criteria, the doctor will make a diagnosis.

In order to understand the different perspectives of autism, it is useful to know the difference between “disorder” and “disability”.

A disorder is a medical condition that affects the typical function of the mind or body. Specifically, a mental disorder involves cognitive, emotional, and behavioral problems.

From a medical point of view, autism is a mental disorder. This is due to the neurological, psychological and social impacts it can have on life, says Keischa Pruden, LCMHCS, LCAS, CCS, psychotherapist and founder of Pruden Counseling Concepts.

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)a disability is “any condition of the body or mind that makes it more difficult for the person with the disability to do certain activities and interact with the world around them”.

Autism is considered a disability. This is because its symptoms can make it difficult for a person to navigate neurotypical norms.

How is autism a medical disability?

“Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability, which means it’s caused by differences in brain development,” says Matthew Edelstein, PsyD, BCBA-D, psychologist at Choose Therapy. Typically, this leads to delays in learning and development.

In general, people with autism experience:

  • social communication and interaction difficulties
  • Restricted or repetitive behaviors or interests
  • delay in language, movement, cognitive abilities, or learning
  • difficulty paying attention

For people with autism, these characteristics can make it difficult to interact in school, work, and other social environments. As a result, it is considered a medical disability.

It is important to note that the characteristics of autism vary in type and severity. There is a spectrum of symptoms.

The degree of disability will depend on the type and severity of these symptoms.

From a legal perspective, autism is classified as a disability.

This means that people with autism are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA is a law, not a program. This means there is no need to apply for coverage or benefits.

Sharon Kaye-O’Connor, LCSW, psychotherapist at Choose Therapy, explains that people with autism are legally entitled to various benefits. This includes reasonable accommodations at school and in the workplace.

According to Kaye-O’Connor and Pruden, accommodation may include:

  • sensory support (like auditory trainers)
  • adjustments to the environment (like smaller classes)
  • location flexibility (like working from home)
  • modified schedules
  • individualized teaching outside of class

Depending on the support needed, some people may also qualify for disability benefits. These include Social Security, Medicaid and support from a caregiver, Kaye-O’Connor says.

From a medical and legal perspective, autism is considered a disability. But when it comes to self-identification, that’s not always the case.

In other words, some autistic people identify as disabled, while others do not. This may depend on several factors:

Level of support needed

According to Pruden, people who need more than one type of support may consider themselves disabled.

On the other hand, there are people who “may need less support [and] don’t see themselves as disabled,” says Pruden.

Environment

A person’s environment also affects whether they identify as disabled. As Kaye-O’Connor explains, “The environment can play a huge role in determining our comfort and our ability to thrive.”

For example, some people might identify with the social model of disability. According to Kaye-O’Connor, they might also feel like their challenges are due to living in an environment that wasn’t created with neurodivergent needs in mind.

Changing social perspectives

The narrative around neurodiversity and autism is changing. As Pruden notes, there is a growing group of children and adults who see their autism as a superpower rather than a limitation.

These people are also “selflessly advocating for themselves and for others to be seen as capable and accepted, autism and all,” Pruden says.

“Each person with autism is unique in their own way, and they are free to identify in whatever way suits them best,” adds Edelstein. For example, “many people with high-functioning ASD prefer to identify themselves based on their personal strengths rather than their weaknesses.”

Again, being mindful of language can help support these more positive outlooks.

“Neurodiversity” refers to the range of neurological differences. “Neurodivergence” describes neurological traits that differ from what is considered typical or neurotypical.

If a child is on a spectrum, it is important to talk with them about their own neurodivergence. This will help them understand their own needs in different environments. It will also ensure that they feel supported, accepted and cared for.

When talking with your child about their own neurodivergence, Pruden believes in being honest. She suggests sharing information in a way that is appropriate for their age and development.

For older children, you can also explain neurodivergence in terms of “operating systems”, like Windows and macOS on computers.

As Kaye-O’Connor explains, “None of the operating systems is wrong; they just work differently. And just as there are different types of operating systems for computers, there are different types of brains. Each brain type has its own set of strengths, challenges, and needs.

When explained in this way, autism can be framed as a different way of functioning rather than a “problem.”

People with autism are eligible for various government disability benefits in the United States. These benefits are available on a state and federal basis.

State government benefits for autism

According to Edelstein, many states offer a Medicaid waiver. This is a program for people with intellectual disabilities.

The exact benefits vary by state, but often include:

  • financial aid
  • access to health care
  • transportation
  • home support

You can usually find these resources on your state health agency’s website.

Federal Autism Benefits

According to Edelstein, people with autism can receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI). It’s a federal benefit program for low-income people with disabilities, regardless of age, Edelstein says.

Adults who have worked in the past may also qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).

You can apply for SSI and SSDI on each program’s website.

Autism is considered a disability from a medical and legal perspective. According to these perspectives, the condition makes it difficult for a person to interact with their environment. As a result, people with autism are eligible for various disability benefits.

However, not everyone on the spectrum identifies as having a disability. A person’s self-identification depends on many factors, including their degree of limitations and the level of support they need.

It’s important to be mindful when talking about autism and other health issues. Even if someone on the spectrum identifies as having a disability, that doesn’t mean they need to be “cured.”

If you or a loved one has autism, a mental health professional can help you navigate the condition.

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