Are Autistic People Disabled?

Yes, autistic people are often disabled, but that probably does not mean what you think it does.

The word disabled carries a great deal of negative baggage and is often incorrectly used to mean impairment. An impairment is defined as a faculty or function being weakened or damaged, where part of the body or mind does not function as it would in most people or is missing altogether. Missing a limb is an impairment, as is being blind. Depression and dementia are both mental impairments.

But impairments do not disable people in themselves. They are disabled by an environment that does not cater for their impairment. The classic example is a someone who uses a wheelchair because of a problem with their legs or spine. In a flat area, they can go to as many places as someone who can walk. But in a building where the only access to the rooms is by a staircase, they do not have the same access. This means that they are disabled by the design of the building, not by their impairment.

In the same way, autistic people can be disabled by an environment or by being forced to do something in a neurotypical manner which does not suit the way that our brains are wired. For example, an autistic person who is hypersensitive to sound may find it very hard to work in a noisy environment. Another autistic person may find it hard to process information received orally, so may prefer to carry out important conversations by email or text.

It is important to remember that being disabled should never reflect negatively on the individual – it reflects a lack of provision for their needs, whatever these may be. In some countries, including the UK, being recognised as disabled can lead to legal entitlement to adjustments in the workplace and other provision, so it can be helpful despite the stigma.

Admitting to yourself that you are disabled can be hard but remember that it in no way means there is anything wrong with you. It is about having different needs that are not always met. This is wrong, and over time the situation will improve, but until we live in a world that is fully accessible to us all, getting the support that being recognised as disabled provides can be a huge help.


Neurodiversity Reference Material