Is Autism a Disability?

by Guy Shahar

Published 6th June, 2016

There have been a number of newspaper articles about Transforming Autism over the past couple of weeks, mostly based around this press release about the launch of the book.  They quote me, usually in a headline, as saying that autism is not a disability, but a condition of great sensitivity which brings a lot of very significant positives.

Many people have been very appreciative of this perspective, including professionals, parents of autistic children and adults with autism.  Personally, I didn’t feel that there could be anything to object to in these sentiments, as they felt to me to be overwhelmingly positive.  Rather than focus on the limitations that autism brings, this description chose to focus on the great abilities and potential that autistic people have and on the real possibilities of facilitating the realisation of that potential.

But I did get a few tweets from people who were quite indignant at me for saying this and who had clearly been quite upset by what I had said.  They include this one:


 I don’t know you but I KNOW MY boys & YOU can TRUST me that MY 4 BOYS #AUTISM IS A DISABILITY.

And in response to another tweeter, an autistic adult added:


 Yes, the system is broken. But to deny that many of us find our ASD a disability is abelist in the extreme

In fairness, it was only a couple of people, but nevertheless, they had been genuinely offended and hurt by my comments.  It was a reminder about the sensitivity of language and how something that seems so innocuous, even positive, to the person saying it, could mean something very different to someone else.  When I said that autism was not a disability, they didn’t hear all the positive stuff that was behind it – they heard their struggle through their own or their children’s difficulties apparently being dismissed as something less than it was.  It may have been heard in the context of harsh and unsympathetic attitudes and expectations from people around them, and the word “disability” may have been the only thing that they had with which to resist such attitudes.  They may have received the phrase “autism is not a disability” as “Come on, it’s not that bad.  Pull yourself together and get on with life!”

Of course, that couldn’t have been farther from my intentions.  And from a different perspective, of course, autism is a disabilty, in that it makes it more difficult to meet certain specific expectations that society may have.  But to call it so, and to think of it in that way, runs the risk of taking away hope and self-respect from people with autism, who are already widely perceived as being deficient in some way.  It plays into the prevalent narrative about there being something “wrong” with autistic people.  To focus on what is difficult for autistic people can leave one a little hopeless, which is a shame when there are so many utterly admirable qualities that are far more widespread in the autistic community than outside it.

I would hope that if anybody reads the articles in full, and especially the book, they would not be left in any doubt about the attitudes behind what I have written, whatever language may have been used.  But the response to the headline is a reminder that we live in a world of rapid reactions to soundbites taken out of context, and we need to be mindful of how others may react.

That said, I don’t think I could have phrased what I did in a different way, and I do stand by what I said.  But in future, I will be less likely to assert that “autism is not a disability” as if that in itself explains what I want to say.

In turn, I would urge everybody who hears anything that seems to be offensive from anybody else to pause for a moment and look behind the language to the intention it wants to express before reacting.  We are all human beings with essentially the same struggles and ideals.  It is not likely that we are all on different sides all the time.  I’m sure that it is mostly simple misunderstanding, caused by an over-readiness to draw conclusions about others’ intentions.

Social media is all the rage at the moment, with its fast reactions and rapidly formed opinions.  Twitter, with its 140 character limit, is not the ideal medium in which to formulate and respond to ideas, and yet it is used for this routinely.  Hidden behind a computer, we seem to feel somehow empowered to nurture the darker side of our nature, and to create an online world of adversarial aggression.

This is especially ironic in discussions of autism, as this sort of environment is extremely unwelcoming to autistic people, who are in general far more deeply affected by negativity and aggression.  It could be easily averted if we took the time to consider with an open mind and perhaps with some compassion what is being expressed before responding to it.

I end with one of my own tweets from last week.  Let’s hope it’s the way things develop.

 Let’s make Twitter #autismFriendly. Cut the indignation, abuse, positioning. More open-minded, respectful discussion.

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