I internally cringe a little when someone says autism is a disability. Yes, autism can absolutely inhibit my life and ability to operate when I’m in environments, cultural norms, systems, and structures that are designed according to neurotypical standards.
For example, when I worked at jobs that expected me to be on point all day long for eight hours. My autistic brain needs significant periods of rest in order to stay in homeostasis. I would go home feeling utterly wiped out, be barely able to do anything besides take a quiet bath and then lie on the couch. I had nothing left for my social life, the people around me, or myself.
In that situation, my autism was absolutely a disability.
I now work for myself. My mornings are designated for creative work and simple business tasks. In the afternoon I go to my art therapy studio where I meet with a few clients. I have 30 minute breaks between. The environment is calm and designed to be sensory rich, without overwhelming my senses. It is a wonderful place for me to be. In this environment and structure, my autism is an asset. I can connect and focus with my clients better. I can write essays that contribute to the issues that are important to me. I can live a rich, meaningful life that is connected to others.
At the same time, there are other autistic individuals who are so severely impacted by autism that it makes life challenging for them in all environments. For these individuals and their families, autism is absolutely a disability. They need to be recognized and receive community support and resources.
So why do I cringe when someone says autism is a disability?
I want choice. I want understanding. I want people to dig deeper before throwing everything into one category. I want our society to acknowledge the role of the environment in shaping what is a “disability.”
I recently took a trip with a friend who is very knowledgeable about autism and accepts my autistic way of being as natural. We had a glorious weekend together. As I was preparing to go home, I realized I had not once thought about being autistic. This was something new for me. I reflected on our weekend and realized it was because whenever I voiced a need, my friend automatically listened, validated, and was willing to shift our plans.
For instance, when we walked into a noisy restaurant, we agreed to eat out on the quiet patio. When I began to feel tired from all of the new stimulation, we decided to return to the hotel so I could take a nap .Our conversations flowed and went on many different tangents - I was never once chastised for my sporadic trains of thought. My friend never once shamed me for my way of being or my requests. They even learned with time, and would research quieter restaurants or places to explore.
In our time together, I was just being. Never having to justify myself or fight for my needs. I was just another human. In that weekend, it didn’t feel like there was any “dis”ability. We were just two friends happy to be together. Just as my friend made adjustments for me, I tried to do the same for their preferences and ways of being.
So will I be offended if someone refers to autism as a disability? No. I understand why.
Will I be offended if someone refers to me as disabled? No, I also understand why.
AND, I will still advocate for more nuanced conversations on disability. I will still write essays about the glorious aspects of autism as well as the challenges. I will still share my perspectives and expand the conversation on autism.
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