What the Social Model of Disability Can Tell Us About Autism

October 26, 2018 | Megan Lambert, 2018 AAPD Summer Intern

The social model of disability has been around for decades, and its radical ideas have many implications about disability. Much can change when we start to view disability as social, not only in our bodies and minds. However, outside of small circles, very few people — even seasoned disability advocates — have applied this theory to autism.

The traditional view of autism is depressing. In its view, autistic people are broken. The only way to fix this is cure and treatment, but cure is nowhere to be seen, and treatments are fishy and cost thousands of dollars, even if you’re lucky enough to live somewhere where they are available.

No one questioned whether cures or treatments are what we really need, what we really want. Well — autistic people questioned it.

I find joy in being autistic. So do many of my autistic friends — even the ones who are often labeled “low functioning,” “dependent,” and “hopeless” (such disparaging terms)! We celebrate our identities, but the rest of the world is still miles behind us. It can be daunting.

Non-autistic disability advocates often neglect to apply the social model when they talk about autism, and that’s important. I think our community not only can do better, but has the obligation to. Here’s how.

Nothing About Us, Without Us: A popular adage with disability advocates — and it’s still relevant. You can’t talk about autism if you’re ignoring autistic people and what we have to say. All those people advocating for a cure? Most of them aren’t autistic.

You Don’t Know Me: Much of the information out there about autism isn’t accurate to the real experiences of autistic people. It’s nice to hear that you’re interested in our issues, but don’t assume you know more about autism than we do. In fact, it’s sometimes best to assume that you don’t know anything about autism at all.

Educate Yourself!: So maybe you don’t know anything about autism. It’s time to learn — from us. Read what autistic activists write about our experiences — not only the voices that are easy to find, but also those that are often quieter. Autistic women, autistic people of color, queer and trans autistic people, and poor autistic people all have stories to tell.

This Space Is Our Space: Your disability-centered social circles, articles, and theories aren’t always accessible to autistic people, even though we are just as disabled as you. If you don’t make any efforts to make easy-read materials, sensory-friendly environments, or spaces where people can communicate in the ways that are most comfortable for them, you aren’t including us.

Who Are You Speaking To?: Many autistic advocates prefer “identity-first” language (“autistic person” instead of “person with autism”). Our disability is part of us, and we don’t want to dance around it. And please — don’t call us “high functioning” or “low functioning.” If you don’t respect our language, you don’t respect us.

This advice won’t solve every issue, and advocacy can never stop if you want it to be effective. I urge you to start!


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Megan Lambert is a 2018 AAPD Summer Intern. She interned at the National Disability Rights Network.

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