AUTISM: Reframing the Way We Understand and Support Autism as a Society
Updated: Apr 18
Autism is characterized as a neurodevelopmental condition that impacts behavior, speech, social interaction, and sensory processing. Because autism is a spectrum, every autistic person has vastly different portrayals, but all have their own distinctive talents and skill sets. Although our society has made some progress in understanding autism and its implications, there is still much work that needs to be done in terms of how we approach, understand, and support autistic individuals.
The way society perceives and comprehends autism has historically been shaped by the medical model of disability, which places a strong emphasis on diagnosing and treating a person as having a medical condition. It categorizes autism as a medical condition resulting from genetic deficits or environmental harm that needs to be fixed or cured. However, the social model of disability is gaining more popularity, as it focuses on understanding disability as a product of the environment and society and focuses efforts on promoting awareness, designing inclusive spaces, and changing attitudes to foster a more holistic and accepting understanding of autism.
The medical model aims to help autistic individuals fit into society by correcting or minimizing their differences. Advocates of this model consider those with atypical traits and behaviors as having problems that need to be changed through intensive behavioral-based therapies and treatments. As a result, behavioral-based treatments focus largely on reducing or eliminating autistic behaviors, forcing a person to fit into a model that they were never intended to or may even want to.
The social model of disability, on the other hand, was developed by disabled people and their allies. This model views disability as a result of societal barriers that create further difficulties for individuals with impairments. It recognizes that the environment and society are responsible for creating obstacles that prevent autistic individuals from participating fully in society. In this approach, disability is not viewed as a medical problem to be fixed or cured, but rather as a social construct that results from the societal deterrents that limit the participation of autistic individuals. Some of these societal barriers include prejudice, negative opinions and attitudes about individuals with disabilities, restricted access, and systematic exclusion.
The social model recognizes that autism is a part of the natural human variation and that autistic individuals have unique strengths and abilities that should be celebrated and supported. This approach acknowledges the diversity of human experience and aims to create a more inclusive and accessible society that values and accommodates the differences of all individuals. The focus of this model is based around providing accessibility, independence, and opportunity for all individuals to enable individuals to participate as fully as they desire to in our society. This can include public accommodations such as sensory-friendly environments, clearly defined or visual communication means, and supporting social and behavioral differences.
It is important to emphasize that autism is not a sickness, not something that has to be "fixed," and is not something that ought to be shunned or dreaded in our culture. Instead, we should concentrate our efforts on encouraging acceptance of neurodiversity. It can be difficult for persons with autism to function in the world because it is built for neurotypical people. To make the world a more inclusive one, neurotypical individuals must be more accepting and understanding of autistic people.
Non-autistic individuals can implement concepts from the social model of disability in order to expand and grow their understanding of autism and how it can be supported. Implementing these ideas in daily life can be as simple as making small adjustments to our language, attitudes, and behavior. For example, in social situations, we can be mindful of sensory overload and provide quiet spaces for autistic individuals to retreat to when they feel overwhelmed. In the workplace, accommodations such as flexible working hours, reducing background noise, or providing written instructions instead of verbal ones can make a significant difference to autistic individuals.
Ultimately, the best way to understand and support the autistic population is to learn from autistic individuals. There are several books written by adult autistic individuals depicting their experiences, explaining what they need non-autistic people to understand, and explaining how neurotypical people can do a better job of supporting, including, and respecting them. Some book recommendations include: Sincerely, Your Autistic Child: What People on the Autism Spectrum Wish Their Parents Knew About Growing Up, Acceptance, and Identity by Morénike Giwa Onaiwu, The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism by Naoki Higashida, and Odd Girl Out: My Extraordinary Autistic Life by Laura E. James.
In conclusion, supporting autistic individuals requires a shift in the way we think about and approach disability as a whole. It is the responsibility of neurotypical people to be more open and understanding of autistic individuals and create an inclusive environment that celebrates and values neurodiversity. By shifting away from the medical model to the social model of disability, and making small adjustments in our language, behavior, and the environment, we can create a more inclusive and welcoming society for all.
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Author: Dr. Katherine Lewis, OTD, OTR/L
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Devita-Raeburn, E. (2016, August 10).
The controversy over autism’s most common therapy. Spectrum. https://www.spectrumnews.org/features/deep-dive/controversy-autisms-common-therapy/ Lambert, M. (2018, October 26).
What the Social Model of Disability Can Tell Us About Autism. AAPD. https://www.aapd.com/what-the-social-model-of-disability-can-tell-us-about-autism/ NeuroDiverCity. (n.d.).
NeuroDiverCity: Medical and Social Models of Disability. NeuroDiverCity. https://www.neurodivercitysg.com/medical-model-vs-social-model.html
This information is generalized and intended for educational purposes only. Due to potential individual contraindications, please see your primary care provider before implementing any strategies in these posts.