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Jackie Schuld Art Therapy Blog

I’ve Never Liked the Word “Disorder”

People get extremely opinionated when it comes to mental health conditions. I couldn’t even finish that sentence without stepping into a minefield. Some people would strongly say mental health “disorders.” I’m not comfortable with the word “disorder.”

Even before I knew I was autistic, I didn’t like the word “disorder.” As a mental health counselor, I didn’t like that “disorder” places the onus on the person. For example, if we say someone has depression, it can suggest that something is chemically imbalanced inside of them or something is wrong. In most cases, what is wrong is EXTERNAL. It’s the systems, environments, life experiences, and more that contribute to depression. A person doesn’t feel good because what they’re experiencing every day ISN’T good.

So in my private practice, I prefer not to diagnose people with “disorders,” unless they need it for insurance purposes. I feel so strongly about it that I wrote an entire essay entitled “To Diagnose or Not.”

Autistic art therapist Jackie Schuld shares a collage with a woman looking through oranges and then an abstract background.
"It's all how you look at it" Collage by Jackie Schuld

When I learned I was autistic in my mid-30’s, the word “disorder” became very personal. Most professionals, and probably most of our culture, refers to autism as a disorder.

They’re saying, here is the “normal” standard of behavior, and there is autism - a set of “symptoms” and “behaviors” that makes this person different. Different in a way that isn’t good.

Luckily, our understanding of autism is rapidly expanding. We now know it’s simply a different neurotype and there are many positive, neutral, and challenging aspects of being autistic. We also know that many of the challenging aspects are due to environmental factors, not necessarily the autistic person themself (you can read about this in my essay Autism Does Not Directly Cause Difficulty Socializing).

So we no longer need to refer to autism as a disorder.

However, the truth is there is a gap between our rapid understanding of autism (what I call the Autistic Awakening) and the mental health field and our culture at large.

Most people who see me striding through the airport and confidently walking up to the ticket counter to pre board for disability would never guess that I am autistic. When I disclose I am autistic to people who know me, they sometimes have a puzzled look on their face.

I get it. All they know of autism is stereotypes (see Autistic Stereotypes Prevent People From Knowing Their Autistic”).

As for the mental health field, it’s even worse. It’s worse because they gaslight and inflict far more harm with misdiagnoses, dismal, and condescension. You can bet your ass I wrote an entire essay about that too: Autistic Adults Deserve Better From the Mental Health Field.

This essay is full of links to other essays I wrote about autism. Sometimes it feels I have to keep saying the same things over and over and over as I educate and advocate about autism. The reality is I just want more and more people to hear my words and believe them.

Every time I share about autism, there is some ignorant professional that comments about it being a disorder, that self-identification isn’t valid, or some other constraining, demeaning comment.

Again, people are VERY opinionated when it comes to mental health. Look, I didn’t tack on “conditions” or “disorders” that time. I don’t want the fact that I am “autistic” to cause anyone to question the quality of my mental health. I think that I am just as healthy as the average human (though that may not be saying much in this day and age).

I can see I’m rambling here. I tend to ramble and repeat myself when I feel I’m not being understood. And that’s how it often feels as I share over and over again about autism. But it seems that is what it is going to take. Sharing over and over until there is enough space for us to just be.


Thank you for reading. If you’d like to read more, sign up for my FUNletter. If you would like to explore your autistic identity with an autistic therapist, you can learn more about my therapy services here.


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