Is Autism a Disability? What Does It Really Mean to Be Autistic

Whether you’re wondering if your little one may be autistic or a health professional has already made the identification, it can certainly lead you on the search for more information. You may suddenly have questions such as, “What exactly is autism?” “Is autism a disability?” “What does it really mean to be autistic?”

Autism is classified as a disability due to the challenges that frequently accompany it; however, many people disagree with this classification. Children with autism are often extremely talented and gifted in certain areas. In fact, many famous and successful people are/were neurodiverse, including Dan Akroyd, Thomas Edison, Susan Boyle, Daryl Hannah, Elon Musk, Dave Asprey, Nikola Tesla, and Henry Cavendish—that’s a lot of scientists and performers.  

Serenity Kids Co-Founder, Joe Carr, learned he was autistic when he was in college and has been able to embrace his autism and access the unique gifts that were made possible by his autism. “I wasn’t broken. I was autistic, and my amazing gifts were very much worth the challenges,” Carr shared. “In this sense, I discovered that I wasn’t disabled. I just had a different mix of strengths and challenges than most other people.” 

Autism explained

Autism comprises a wide range of behaviors and developmental events in children. In general, autism is characterized by differences in communication and social interaction in specific contexts, combined with repetitive behavior patterns and special interests. 

Health professionals and parents usually discover autism by observing children's behavior. Today, the autism spectrum disorder is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), which is a resource that health professionals use to diagnose mental disorders. 

Americans and Autism

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), autism affects 2.3% of 8-year-olds in the United States. Autistic children have both challenging and exceptional experiences during their education. This continues throughout their employment as they get older. 

Additionally, autistic people may experience barriers to accessing health services, education, and employment. In fact, an estimated 85% of autistic college graduates are underemployed or unemployed. This is generally a result of poor accommodations for autistic individuals in the workplace, as well as difficulty finding employment that aligns with their unique talents and interests.

Consequently, the United States Social Security Administration (SSA) provides assistance to autistic people and encourages their inclusion. As a result, more and more employers are focusing on improving job opportunities to allow autistic people to utilize their unique gifts and skills. 

Is autism a disability?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Labor, autism is considered a disability since it affects development, communication, and interaction with others, similar to a learning disability. 

Additionally, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990—which guarantees civil rights to people with disabilities and prohibits discrimination against them in schools, public transportation, and the workplace—applies to autistic people.

However, many members of the autistic community disagree with the classification of autism as a disability. 

A disability is defined by the CDC as a condition of the body or mind (impairment) that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities and interact with the world around them. 

This definition implies that a person with a disability is at an overall disadvantage as a result of their disability. And while autism is commonly defined as a “developmental disability”, it doesn’t necessarily fit the standard definition of a “disability”. 

Sure, autism may come with certain challenges, but it also comes with special gifts and advantages. The connotation of “disability” can leave a person feeling like something is wrong with them, instead of recognizing and embracing their unique gifts and skills. 

“Are there very big challenges we need to overcome? Absolutely. Do we need special services, attention, and accommodations? Most definitely,” shared Carr. “We also need our gifts and talents fed and accentuated, and to be given opportunities to shine. To me, this combination of needs does not constitute a disability, it’s just a neurological difference.” 

Autism: signs and aspects in children

Every person and child is different, so it’s no surprise that autism may affect people differently. While one person with autism may experience certain challenges, another person with autism may thrive in those exact same scenarios—autism truly does exist on a spectrum. 

Some of the common signs and aspects are seen in children who have autism include: 

  • Not pointing to or looking at objects to show interest 

  • Trouble relating to or communicating with others, wanting to be alone, being in their own world

  • Delayed language skills

  • Extreme interest in one subject area

  • Not responding to their name by 9 months 

  • Trouble expressing their own needs or feelings and recognizing those of others

  • Uninhibited, less concerned about what others think of them

  • Repeating words or phrases 

  • Very direct, saying exactly what they’re thinking 

  • Rigid thoughts - trouble learning new skills or adapting to new routines 

  • Has very specific food preferences, only eating a few types of food, sensitive to texture 

  • Repetitive behavior like rocking, spinning or waving hands 

  • Avoiding eye contact or being cuddled 

  • Can be disruptive or aggressive in social situations 

But along with those challenges, there are also strengths and gifts commonly seen in people with autism, including: 

  • Having a good memory 

  • Hyper creativity and thinking way outside the box

  • Learning certain information quickly

  • Being exceptionally honest and following the rules

  • Following a schedule and being on time

  • Being able to view things differently 

  • Having deep passions and interests

  • Being able to concentrate for extended periods of time

  • Being empathetic and understanding toward others

  • Being detail-oriented

  • Being good at visual thinking and learning

  • Having a unique sense of wonder about things around them

“Autism has really given me that mix of challenges and gifts,” shared Carr. “Yes, there were disadvantages in certain areas, but super advantages somewhere else.” 

Factors that make someone at a higher risk for autism

The cause of autism is unknown. Researchers theorize that genetics and environmental factors may be two potential causes; however, it hasn’t been determined if they actually cause autism, or if they just amplify the signs and unique aspects of autistic people. 

Scientists have, however, determined several other links to autism, including:

  • Family history of autism 

  • Sex - according to current diagnosis rates, males at birth are more likely to be diagnosed as autistic 

  • Premature babies (born before 26 weeks) 

  • Medications during pregnancy

Who is affected by autism?

Autism can affect anyone—including people of all ages, races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic groups, according to the CDC. 

At current diagnosis rates, boys are 4 times more likely than girls to experience autism. While the cause of this difference is unknown, it may be due, in part, to biological differences between boys and girls. 

How do health professionals identify autism?

There is no lab test to diagnose autism. To make the identification in children, doctors will observe your child’s behaviors and discuss any signs that you or other caretakers may be seeing. 

Depending on the age of your child, well-child visits with a health professional may be the first step in identifying your child may have autism. Most children will have these well-child visits at 12 months, 18 months, and 24 months. During these appointments, you’ll likely be asked questions about your little one’s development and behavior.

For example, you may be asked the following questions:

  • Did your baby smile by 6 months?

  • Did they babble and coo by 12 months?

  • Do they respond to their name?

  • Do they smile and interact with people?

  • Do they make eye contact?

These questions will help your pediatrician determine whether your little one should see a specialist for further evaluation. 

If you think you may be noticing signs of autism in your child, talk to a health professional. They’ll discuss your observations and evaluate your child accordingly.

Is there any treatment for autism?

There’s no cure for autism, and many members of the autistic community don’t believe there is even a need for one.

“Autism is an identity to be embraced and celebrated, not eliminated,” shared Carr.

To help reduce some of the common challenges of autism, health and education professionals have developed several services to maximize children’s communication skills and enhance their learning processes. 

For example, health professionals can perform behavioral therapy to help with a range of skills and behaviors, including:

  • Language and communication skills

  • Attention and focus

  • Social skills

  • Memory and academics

  • Problem behaviors


The specific therapy plan will depend on what your child needs, and will vary from child to child. Your health team will help determine the best therapy programs for your child. When seeking support, something Carr recommends you keep in mind is to “make sure the provider knows how to celebrate your child’s autism while teaching skills they need to participate in a non-autistic world. Just teaching them skills without emphasizing that there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with them, is the equivalent of teaching English to a non-native speaker without helping them learn to love their native language. It can leave a child feeling that English (or non-autism) is somehow superior to their native language.”

Can Autistic Individuals Benefit from the Social Security Programs and Benefits?

Since the U.S. Government considers autism to be a “disability”, it’s therefore recognized by the Social Security Administration (SSA) when it comes to social security programs and benefits. 

As a result, autistic individuals can benefit from programs designed to provide financial assistance and protect their inclusion in education and labor. 

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) 

The SSDI program provides benefits to individuals who are deemed “disabled” and unable to work as a result of their “disability”. To be eligible for SSDI benefits, the individual must have a previous work history with sufficient Social Security credits, which are credits earned from working and paying Social Security taxes.

For “disabled” children, the parent’s Social Security credits are considered. “Disabled” adults who have sufficient Social Security credits from their own employment may also qualify for SSDI benefits.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) 

The SSI program provides monthly financial assistance to older adults and other individuals with disabilities, regardless of age, with limited income and resources. 

Since Social Security Disability Income benefits are based on financial need, the parent's income will be considered in the case of a “disabled” child. 

Medical qualification for benefits 

Applications for Social Security benefits will be thoroughly reviewed based on the SSA’s Listing of Impairments, also known as the Blue Book, which lists the criteria each “disability” or “impairment” must meet to qualify for SS benefits. 

According to the Listing of Impairments, an autistic child must meet the following criteria to qualify for SSI benefits.

  1. Medical documentation of both of the following:

  1. Qualitative deficits in verbal communication, nonverbal communication, and social interaction

  2. Significantly restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities

AND

  1. Extreme limitation of one, or marked limitation of two, of the following areas of mental functioning:

  1. Understand, remember, or apply information

  2. Interact with others

  3. Concentrate, persist, or maintain pace

  4. Adapt or manage oneself

Application process 

Depending on the age of the person applying for autism disability benefits, you may be able to apply online, by phone, or in person. However, if you’re applying for your child who is under the age of 18, you won’t be able to apply online and will have to call or visit your local Social Security office. 

Once you’ve submitted your application, it will be reviewed to ensure you meet the basic requirements for social security disability benefits, and then processed and sent to the Disability Determination Services office in your state for the final decision.

Conclusion

While autism is formally defined as a neurological developmental “disability”, it doesn’t fit the mold for a “disability” because of the unique gifts and talents that often accompany the challenges. It’s more fitting to consider autism as a neurological difference. 

“The idea that I was “disabled” was the most damaging part of my autism. It has taken years to learn that I am capable, whole, and awesome just the way I am. Since I switched to that belief system, anything was possible,” shared Carr.

“Let’s celebrate our differences, embrace our diversity, and look at what amazing gifts we have to offer the world with the way we see it. We aren’t disabled, we are different,” said Carr. “So let’s stop treating everyone who’s different as if they’re somehow wrong and celebrate them instead!”

 

Written by Jennifer Wirth. Jennifer is a professional health writer, leveraging her scientific background as a Chemical Engineer to uncover the most interesting aspects of infant nutrition, pregnancy, and parenting. As a wife and mother of three young children, Jennifer is passionate about providing the best possible nutrition for her family. She believes that developing healthy eating habits early helps build the foundation for a long, fulfilling life.


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