Neurodiversity – Part 3: Is Autism a Disability?

As well as calling for a cure for autism many people question the very concept of neurodiversity.

For example, in the articles published by Jonathan Mitchell he says that there is no need for neurodiversity, and that he believes autism is a disease rather than just a variant in the workings of the brain.  This view is bound to cause controversy as neurodiversity itself is a controversial, and a difficult subject.  Some people love the idea of neurodiversity, and think it is one of the most important things to happen to the autism community in years.  Others hate the concept and think that it is a way to attempt to normalise something which is, in actuality, a problem.

This article attempts to look at what neurodiversity is, and how and why it might apply to people with autism in modern day society.

Neurodiversity is a term applied to the concept of respecting conditions such as autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and recognising them simply as variants on the standardised way of thinking rather than as diseases, or afflictions.  Reportedly this terminology has only been around since the late nineties.  What it means is that even though some people are different, nobody is wrong.  Some people question the very existence of neurodiversity, so does neurodiversity exist?  Obviously it is a concept, so it must exist in this sense.  The more important question is, is this the right way to view the world?

Is autism a disability?

If you believe in neurodiversity then this means you think autism is simply a different way of the brain functioning rather than being some sort of disease that must be eradicated.  But how does this sit with the notion of considering yourself disabled or not?  This on its own is a very controversial subject.

Some people may go by whether autism is classed as a disability officially – the problem with this is that these decisions are often made by a panel of people who are mostly neuro-typical.  Things change over time, and are considered disabilities or mental health problems in one decade, and not in another.

Some people with autism do consider themselves to be disabled, while others think that this is a terrible concept.  The difficult thing is though – and I say this as somebody who embraces all the positives of autism – it can be debilitating.  In the same way that somebody who uses a wheel chair may be unable to gain access to a certain building if it isn’t wheelchair accessible, a person with autism may well be unable to go out and do their own shopping, or go to a busy gym for example, because of how their autism affects them.

Even people who might appear to cope very well with their autism, will have difficulties.  I can look at my own life and say that my autism might stop me from travelling to see people – even if they only lived on the other side of town – because of how anxious I might become at the traveling involved.  So I can see how autism can be debilitating.  So even though I do consider my autism to be a disability, at the same time I don’t spend time each day thinking of myself as a disabled person.

I suppose a lot of it depends on a person`s concept of disability; a lot of people are scared to admit that they may find certain aspects of autism to be disabling because they believe that if they admit to having a disability this will somehow define them.  I would say that I am disabled, so I can completely understand when critics of neurodiversity call autism a disability.  But what I can’t agree with is their profoundly negative view of what this means.

Take somebody who competes in the Paralympics; they may have been successful and won gold medals over their career – are they disabled?  Yes.  Do they struggle with aspects of everyday life?  Yes.  But I don`t think that people should have to go to such lengths to be at ease with the concept of being disabled.

My take on neurodiversity is that it acknowledges the concept and existence of certain neurological disabilities, but views them merely as differences rather than some sort of terrible curse that has befallen a section of society.  It also gives people more freedom to determine whether they want to call themselves disabled or not.  If somebody doesn’t think their autism debilitates them in any way then they can quite easily say they are autistic, but not disabled.  And people can still believe in neurodiversity, and see their autism as a disability.