Autism and the social model of disability

Is the Social Model of Disability appropriate for people on the autistic spectrum?

Disability legislation a provision hinges on what's called the SOCIAL MODEL. It was apparently created by disabled people themselves (or were they simply prompted down this route in a series of consultations?). Instead of looking at disability as an individual disadvantage or limitation, we now look at how society creates barriers and by making what are termed "reasonable adjustments" an environment is created where disabled people have an equal chance of leading their lives as able people.

The new language approaches disability as difference of ability and refers to disabilities as "significant impairments". We aren't allowed to use language which otherwise appears to discriminate, such as cripple or lunatic. We are now expected to say that someone is significantly impaired in an aspect of their lives.

What the social model endeavours to do is to remove the barriers to disabled people engaging in society. So people in wheelchairs can access buildings and transport by means of ramps, and emergency procedures in event of fire, for example, must take disabled people into account.

In education and other contexts where information is transferred, we are expected to use 14 point fonts, sans serif texts, and matt paper to ameliorate the high reflectivity of white paper. (Even though some people prefer serifs, or need blue paper)

What is less often realised is that this generalises disability. It takes away the individuality of experience, on the principle that it is no longer about individuals with limiations but a society that endeavours to break down the barriers by means of "reasonable adjustments" - or otherwise using the very ambiguous metaphor "a level playing field".

What this is doing is absolving society from having to address the needs of the individual. The Autistic Spectrum is very individual in its manifestations, and the range of impairments would be very difficult to encompass b means of general reduction in barriers.

So under the Social Model the government is trying to reduce payments to disabled people - which conveys the message that an individual needs help. "Leading Rewarding and Fufilling Lives" is actually about barrier reduction. But is that appropriate to autistic spectrum conditions?

In education I've frequently come up against the idea that once a disabled person has been assessed and given an allocation of reasonable adjustments (more time in exams, handouts on matt paper with sans serif text etc), that's all that now has to be done. I've therefore been told I canniot make any more adjustments for a person on the spectrum, irrespective of the specific needs for that individual, because he or she has been allocated their quota of reasonable adjustments, and any further measures would unfairly advantage that student over able students!

Is autism being ill-served by the social model of disability? I think it is. I think NAS needs to look at the Autism Act to determine whether the provisions are about individuual needs or generalised reduction in barriers.

  • What would it look like if it were better, hypothetically? (e.g. teachers would have a list of the color of paper and font for some individual students?) As was stated in other threads, people don't care about invisible disabilities, they are just one out of many nuisances to them. We want them to think, "If I do this kid a personal favor now (beyond the minimum required by law), then he will make faster progress and over time, he will be better off and therefore LESS of a nuisance."

    Smaller school classes and more teachers would help significantly more than giving existing teachers long individual lists and more rules and laws to adhere to. More 1:1 education would benefit everyone, not only people with clear diagnoses.


    There is a scifi book called "The Speed of Dark", which is set in a world where autistics are optimally accommodated (maybe in the way you imagine it -- the author doesn't give many details or solutions though). I think I recall that all autistics were given long-term jobs that fit their work style (in the main character's case some data pattern analysis). They also got small individual offices that they were allowed to decorate as they wished, and they got a trampoline next to the gym or so. (cool idea) :D

    The book implies that autistic children get individually customized therapies and the best training (again without details). The idea is that these otherwise physically healthy (!) adults can contribute to the workforce under the right conditions. This work measure also had enemies but enough people supported it, and the story is how the main character makes progress.

    (In the end of the book they offer these successful autistics a new experimental scifi treatment that unwires parts of their brains, and after a year of therapy and relearning everything, they were supposedly cured of all negative traits... but kept the good ones and were still able to recall their previous lives... well... it was scifi...)

  • Diffability or disability when it stops being dictated by the average majority view is a crock of nonsense and is realy a management of ignorance and indifference as well as an intransegence to the realities of life and population there has never been a majority of well fit acceptable etc etc yadda yadda people were are all so unique and the homogenised funnel that has brought about this kind of thinking is not much different that the mind set that gave birth the the Airian dream. That did not work out well for all concerned in the long run. much like guilt is a bit of a waste of energy as it achieves little and directs poorly and it goals are better achieved in a more constructive experience for all. but its a massive salient social habit that is deemed sub human if it is not present in the overt behaviour of an individual.

    Edward De Bono askes why we ar so stupid as a human rece ans purports that we have yet to learn to think a skill not so lacking in th ASD community, If we free ourselves from the shackles of being less than we are just another version of human and living within a system that is narror and intransegent in its inclusions.

    Social Model be damned it has a mass of misery as its resume and it is about time it changed and was people centered and not an inherited diatribe of historical rules that serve few, disenfranchise many and dicard an act that makes its validity questionable from the start.

    Smell the coffee people, seeimg is understanding, understanding is seeing, Surprised for the matrix buffs take the red pill and quit sucking on the blue one PLEase.


    Mitkuye oiasin, we are all related


  • Agreed.

    We need a new model  - the Individual Model - in which every individual, whatever their level of ability, disabilty, or difability, is able to access the support and help they need, as an individual, not as some abstracted representative of a social or medical construct.

  • I have never thought about it this way before, but Longman poses some interesting issues which seem plausible.

    I have never liked stereotypes. We are all different, once you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism, as one clinician once put it.

    The move away from the medical model was due to the fact that it tended to focus too heavily on what people with a disability can't do as opposed to what they potentially can do with the right support, and it pathologised autism by making it seem like a sickness instead of a difference. The social model is supposed to celebrate diversity, but  unfortunately it has tended to ignore individual differences and so things have to be improved, an area of ongoing debate.

    Also, too often autism has been treated like a physical difficulty, ignoring the way in which it affects all areas of life because of its social and communication component. So 'reasonable adjustments' only go so far in helping someone with ASC. In an interview, for example, someone on the spectrum will still be at a disadvantage whatever adaptations are made, unless it is a closed interview with no external competition.

  • With regard to the physical side, I gather DSM 5 will not include coordination, fine and coarse motor control etc as a diagnostic. Is that because autism will now be seen as entirely a mental health condition for which clumsiness and lack of coordination will spoil the model?

    The Social Model was broadly a good idea. I think it went too far in its implementation. Also there aren't enough safeguards to prevent it being used as a cop out rather than an effective way of helping people. "Reasonable adjustments" has to mean something, and often the "reasonable" element is about not inconveniencing the general population - "what's the minimum we can get away with?" is as bad as the failings of the medical model.

    My own reaction would be to try to integrate the social model with a medical element that is needs specific. That is the social model takes reasonable ajustment to its practical limit, then we look at a medical model perspective for fine tuning.

  • In some ways the social model may apply MORE to people with autism than to most other disabilities, because autism is defined against an undefined "normal"--if a person without that label has a consuming interest in trains they're a trainspotter, if a person with autism does it's a pathologised "special interest" to be worked against or used as a reward for good ("normal") behaviour, just one example of how a medical label can be used to treat someone negatively.

    BTW the social model wasn't created through consultantions <grin> it really was created by disabled people speaking for themselves about how they experienced disability and what actually limited their ability to live self-determined and full lives. The original group who came up with the social model were people with physical disabilities but lots of autistic people have noticed and written about how the social model works for them. And it does have limitations... It's worth noting that the social model doesn't claim medical treatment or specialist care isn't needed for the "impairment" part of a condition, it just recognises that the world is set up by and for typical people and doesn't recognise the individual needs of people who deviate from that norm, which at some point includes everyone as all of us will in our lifetime experience ill health, aging, and so on. It also points out ways that society can quite literally oppress people with disabilities, such as forcing them to go to segregated "special" schools or live in segregated institutions, abuse on the street, low expectations, lack of assistance and so on. These are definitely experiences many people with autism have in common with other disabled people.

    The language of "reasonable adjustments" actually comes from legal definitions of disability as found in the DDA, Equalities Act etc. And what is "reasonable" is individual not based on some checklist of what hypotehtical "students with dyslexia" or "students with autism" need, as the original poster rightly pointed out.

  • Excellent summary of the social model mw.

    I agree with the social model because AS is not a disease or illness, and we are born with it and can't change the fact we have it. The medical word 'disorder' weakens and victimises us, in my view,  precisely because we can't cure ourselves. With some  real disorders, like OCD, we can greatly modify it even if we can't cure the OCD completely - the same with other disorders like depression.

    To say you are born disordered and will always be disordered becomes self-fulfilling because we can't do anything about it. And this is why I use the word condition, disability (which  can, to an extent, be changed), or difference to describe my issues.

  • Personally I consider myself autistic but not disabled.

    I do feel discriminated against, but thats an issue of being persecuted as a minority,

    like the burning of witches or heretics,

    or the strong ganging up together and stealing from the poor or weak.

    Not really in favour of any legislation, it doesnt work and wastes a lot of time.

    I regard lawyers as parasites, I dont think spending a lot of money on court cases is going to help me, or austic people in general.

    I think this disability debate is a luxury financed by overspending in the bubble years,

    while there may be good intentions nothing is going to happen in a recession,

    a lot of people will be disappointed and have unrealistic expections as a result of a lot of pointless legislation.

  • I applied for a job recently, and had to do an online questionnaire.

    some of the questions seem to blatantly discriminate against autistic people, eg

    (agree/ disagree strongly disagree etc answers )

    I avoid new situations that challenge what I already know

    It only takes a short while to feel comfortable in new situations

    people say that I am talkative

    I dont usually notice when someone at work is upset

    I like to be the center of attention at parties

    I am very sensitive to body language

    I have no problems making new friends


    Dont think this sort of discrimination will ever be legislated against,

    Obviously in a sales job most NT's will see being chatty as more important than honesty.


  • Easy said:
    Not really in favour of any legislation, it doesnt work and wastes a lot of time.

    I regard lawyers as parasites, I dont think spending a lot of money on court cases is going to help me, or austic people in general.

    Easy said:

    I applied for a job recently, and had to do an online questionnaire.

    some of the questions seem to blatantly discriminate against autistic people...

    ...Dont think this sort of discrimination will ever be legislated against

    It certainly won't be if people see legislation as a waste of time, and lawyers as parasites.

    If however, enough people were to take employers that put up questionnaires like that to court under the disability discrimination act, and enough won their cases, then it most likely would, in time, lead to legislation that would improve the chances of people on the Autistic Spectrum finding employment.

    The system may not be perfect but one can not improve it by disengaging from it and just bemoaning it.

    One has to engage with it in order to change it.