The social model of Autism

Good news autistic people. We are not disordered, we are not a tragedy, we are not defective.

There are a lot of assumptions about autism. If you listen to the medical point of view you would think that we were in some way defective. The problem with the medical model is that it only takes into account how we are when we are stressed, depressed or disturbed. But that is not what we are like. We are not disturbed, depressed or stressed all the time. To see a happy autistic person able to give full attention to what makes them happy without distraction is delightful.

Elephant in the shopping mall by Pauline E is licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0

What we need is a paradigm shift, says Dr Jac Den Houting, who is themself autistic. Jac is a research psychologist and Autistic activist working in pursuit of social justice. Jac is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, where they investigate structural and systemic inequities in autism research. A paradigm is a way of looking at things, a model on which a point of view is based.

Talking about autistic people in terms of defects does not make sense. That is the medical paradigm, but there are other ways of looking at us. The Neurodiversity paradigm says that autism is part of a range of natural variations in neurological development that includes dyslexia, OCD and ADHD.

I can be disabled by my environment. I have light sensitivity and in a situation where there is a lot of background noise, especially other conversations, I am unable to switch these other conversations off which makes communicating with other people in these situations both difficult and tiring. I compensate to a degree by carrying prescription sunglasses and earplugs with me.

The medical model assumes that disability is a medical model. Take shopping malls.The medical model says the problem is in the way my mind processes input. A different paradigm would be a social model which says the environment does not cater for my individual characteristics and does not refer to people with a disability. Disabled is a verb, something that is done to someone, so my disability is something that is being done to me, I am disabled by the environment or society around me. I  struggle with busy shopping malls not because there is something wrong with me but because it is designed in a way that does not cater for my needs. If I was shopping in a place that was quiet, dimly lit, predictable and  sparsely populated I would still be autistic but I would not be disabled by this shopping experience.

Most of what we know about autism is based on what we know from medical assumptions and most research conceptualises autism as a problem. Dr Den Houting says that only 7% of funding in autism research goes to help autistic people.

When it comes to getting accomodations to allow autistic people to function in work or elsewhere in society we need the medical model. But it is not the only model.