I’m autistic, and I consider my autism to be a disability. Not all autistic people consider themselves to be disabled, and that’s valid, but I do; I have differences that society is not accommodating of. Something I noticed when I started being more open with friends and family about my disability is that a lot of neurotypical people seem to be uncomfortable with me openly and proudly labeling myself as autistic; well-meaning friends, family, and even healthcare providers warn me not to “define myself” by my autism and insist that I’m “more than” my autism. When people give me this sort of advice, there are three implicit messages they’re conveying:
- They think my autism is something I should be ashamed of.
- They see my autism as a defect rather than a natural variation of humanity.
- They see my autism as something to be overcome.
While the advice I get from neurotypical people is often well-intentioned, it indicates some deeply ableist attitudes towards autism and neurodivergence as a whole. These people see my autism as a problem with me rather than a problem with society. It’s easy for me to recognize these kinds of ableist attitudes in other people because I had to work hard to overcome them myself; I dealt with deep-seated shame and internalized ableism for years after receiving my diagnosis. Underlying many of these ableist attitudes towards autism is what I consider to be a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to live with a chronic disability—the idea that by accepting and accommodating my disability, I’m somehow “giving up.”
I often have to explain to neurotypical people that there are some things that I can’t do, can’t do as easily, or need to do differently because of my disability. Often, these people express concern that I’m going to fall into a self-destructive pattern of telling myself I can’t do things because I’m autistic and then not even trying—basically, that I’m “giving up.” While I appreciate the concern for my well-being, this is common form of ableism that people with invisible disabilities face—not being believed when we explain how our disability affects us. People like this see my autism as something that can be “overcome” through hard work, which is ableist both because it frames disability as a defect with the individual rather than a problem with society and because it implies that the only reason why I’m disabled is because I’m somehow not trying hard enough.
There’s immense power in knowing what I can do, what I can’t do, and what I need to do differently, and recognizing this has improved my quality of life dramatically. Far from throwing my hands in the air and accepting defeat, recognizing where my limits are allows me to ask for help when I need it, find alternative solutions or approaches, and grant myself accommodations. Whereas I used to try and force myself to do things that are naturally difficult for me, knowing where my limits are allows me to play to my strengths and accommodate my differences. As a result, I can do many more things than I could do before I accepted my disability. Even so, people equate accommodating my disability to giving up, insisting that I don’t let my autism “hold me back” when I try to explain that I can’t do something in the same way an allistic person can. This is ableist because it assumes that the way I might do something is inherently inferior to the way an allistic person might do something, even if the end result is the same. This would be like telling a wheelchair user that using a wheelchair is somehow giving in to their disability, when for many people, assistive devices like wheelchairs grant them independence they might not otherwise have.
Even though accommodating my differences helps me to be successful and independent, people are often insistent that I do things the same way an allistic person might, even if doing things an alternative way might be significantly easier. Disabled people often face an impossibly high bar for “how disabled” they must be before society will permit them to have an accommodation. For example, many people with chronic pain or nerve conditions that make walking painful or difficult for them use wheelchairs to make getting around easier, but these people often face scorn from bystanders for using an assistive device when, “They can walk just fine!” Non-disabled people are often quick to judge disabled people for using an accommodation when they “don’t really need it,” and of course it’s never left up to the disabled person to determine whether they qualify. Oftentimes, bystanders will make this determination by whether they believe it’s possible for the person to survive without the accommodation—not by how much it increases their quality of life. People often tell me something along the lines of, “it won’t kill you” when I explain that I can’t do something fairly common because of my disability. And while they are technically correct, no attention is paid to how difficult doing that thing might be for me or how easy it would be to accomplish the same goal a different way. When people insist that I’m “giving up” by accommodating my disability, it’s because they don’t believe that I need accommodation in the first place.
A lot of parents and even medical providers are against formal psychiatric diagnoses or “labeling” their children/patients because they’re afraid of them “giving in” to their disability. For me, pretending to be neurotypical actively made my life more difficult, and learning that I’m autistic helped me to better understand where my limits are and how I can accommodate my differences. You might not think that learning how to accommodate your differences requires a label, and I agree that it shouldn’t, but unfortunately, years of internalized ableism made me avoid seeking accommodations out of shame. It took finding communities of people like me to accept that my brain works differently than an allistic person’s and to realize that there’s nothing wrong with that. In my case, people’s aversion to labels and unwillingness to call me autistic even after receiving my diagnosis contributed significantly to the shame I felt about my neurodivergence, making it much harder for me to permit myself to seek accommodation.
Acknowledging that I have a chronic disability means acknowledging that there are some things about myself that I can’t change, and instead of wasting time trying to change them or waiting for them to change, I can make lifestyle changes to accommodate my differences. An example of this is that I can’t drive safely because of my disability; I tried for years to learn how to drive, and it never got any easier. Rather than continue to put myself and others at risk by trying to drive, I moved to a large city with good public transportation infrastructure so I don’t need to drive to be independent. By accepting that driving is something my disability doesn’t permit me to do—at least for the time being—I was able to work the problem and find a solution that allows me to still have my independence. Accepting my disability isn’t “holding me back” from driving; I wasn’t able to drive in the first place. Accepting my disability empowered me find an accommodation that helped me achieve the same goals.
The way society frames my autism as something I need to fight to overcome rather than accept as a core component of my identity is ableist and actively makes my life more difficult. Accepting that there are some things I can’t do or need to do differently has significantly improved my quality of life, because it has empowered me to accommodate my differences instead of fighting against them. If I can’t attend certain kinds of events for sensory reasons, I’ll find other activities that are more sensory-friendly. If I have trouble making phone calls, I’ll find services that offer alternative communication options. If I get anxious in social settings, I’ll bring some stim toys. There are lots of simple ways I can accommodate my differences to make life easier, but society is insistent that I do things the same way allistic people do and that doing otherwise means “giving in” to my disability. I am not “more than” my autism; my autism is part of who I am. And there’s nothing wrong with that.