Post by:

Deiera Bennett

Created on:

April 8, 2024

Is Autism a Disability?

April is Autism Acceptance Month, which means it’s the perfect time to answer the frequently asked question: Is autism a disability? The answer is more complicated than a simple “yes” or “no.” 

The term “disability” is traditionally associated with conditions that need to be cured or treated, which is why some people are uncomfortable viewing autism as a disability. While it’s true that autism is not a condition that needs to be cured, many autistic students need accommodations and additional support to be successful in the traditional school setting. By refusing to view autism as a disability, educators may overlook these necessities and hinder them from experiencing true acceptance, belonging, and success at school.

As a general rule, we at Social Cipher do not view autism as a disability according to the medical model of disability. Instead, we view autism as a disability based on the social model of disability. The difference between these two models is extremely important for district administrators, school administrators, educators, and parents to understand as they play a direct role in the support students receive.

What is the difference between the medical model of disability and the social model of disability?

According to the Office of Developmental Primary Care, the medical model of disability views disabilities as defects that must be cured, fixed, or eliminated in order to have a high quality of life. This model places low expectations on people with disabilities and seeks to minimize or mask autistic traits and behaviors so the person can conform to neurotypical norms as much as possible. Many autistic individuals and advocates reject that autism is a disability based on this model. However, some autistic people do choose to view their autism through the medical model lens.

The Office of Developmental Primary Care defines disability under the social model of disability as “the inability to participate fully in home and community life. Disabilities are restrictions imposed by society.” The social model of disability believes that the solution is to fix society, not the individual. This view shifts the focus from assimilation to acceptance by removing barriers and making accommodations to make society more inclusive. A counterargument for this model is that there are autistic individuals with very high support needs who need to be “cured” in order to be able to function independently. As countless research shows, there is no “cure” for autism. Instead, the focus should be directed towards supporting the individual by removing barriers and providing opportunities to participate in activities and form relationships. 

Why is it important to view autism as a disability through the social model of disability?

It’s important to distinguish between the two models of disability because it will determine the type of support students receive and can make a major difference in how autistic youth experience school and life in general.

Our Neurodiversity Consultant, Dr. Lucas Harrington explains, “the social model of disability is saying disability is a mismatch between what the person’s brain and body needs and what the environment is providing.” Autistic people have different challenges and strengths, but the world is not designed to accommodate them because they are the minority. He believes that “If most people were autistic, the schools, workplaces, and everything would be structured very differently and neurotypical people would probably have a hard time with that.”

For example, class discussions often require quick responses and rely heavily on reading non-verbal cues (such as body language and tone) from peers and teachers. This type of communication can be challenging for some autistic students. However since autistic students are the minority, they are often expected to follow neurotypical communication norms. When this challenge is viewed through the medical model of disability, the student’s autism is seen as the barrier hindering them from participating in class discussions. It puts the responsibility on the student to learn and adapt. When this challenge is viewed through the lens of the social model of disability, the barrier is that there is only one form of accepted communication in the classroom. This perspective shifts the focus from the student needing to learn and adapt to the school making changes to allow for additional ways to participate in discussions. In this example, this could mean allowing students to participate online in addition to in person.

Failing to acknowledge autism as a disability – or viewing it solely through the medical model – can negatively impact autistic students’ educational experience and overall well-being. Aside from not receiving accommodations and support, autistic students can be pressured to conform by their teacher and peers due to the school not educating everyone on the challenges autistic students face. This misunderstanding can result in bullying, isolation, anxiety, and low-self esteem.

Our online curriculum and SEL game Ava was created by a neurodivergent team specifically for neurodivergent youth ages 10-15. Learn more about how Ava can help your students strengthen valuable social and emotional skills.


Interview w/ Lucas Harrington, Psy.D

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