Autism: Disability or Disorder? Explore the Controversy

autism disability or disorder

The answer to whether autism is a disability or disorder is complicated. If you’re a parent with a child on the spectrum, you may have learned many terms to describe autism and its characterizations. Phrases like neurotypical, reinforcement, and echolalia may come as second nature these days (if not, check out our Autism Glossary). But if you get stuck on exactly what general category autism belongs to, you are not alone. “Disorder” is the official name for autism (Autism Spectrum Disorder). However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is defined as a disability.

If you’re a parent, caregiver, or person with autism, how does that make you feel? Does it seem right? Does it seem wrong? Does it make you feel like autistic people are disempowered?

Let’s explore this debate!

The Autism Controversy: Disorder or Disability?

Autism is different for each person affected by the disorder. Some children will have mild symptoms that a casual observer may never notice. Others have a significant impairment that affects how they participate in the world. Applying one word to such a broad set of symptoms is difficult. The debate on whether autism is a disability or disorder usually divides people into two categories:

  1.  Autism is a disorder

    Families with children on the spectrum generally prefer to use the word “disorder” when describing autism, believing it doesn’t stigmatize the child. Despite the child’s varying neurological development, they hope for a future where inclusivity and accessibility are possible for everyone. To the folks on this side of the debate, calling autism a disability seems like an insult and a limiting belief. They feel that using the term suggests something is inherently wrong with the child.

  2.  Autism is a disability

    Families that fall into this category feel that their child’s struggles are so significant they deserve legislative and governmental assistance. They use the word disability so that autism is taken seriously and children get the support they need throughout their lives. In their eyes, the word “disorder” minimizes the severity of the experience the child with severe autism is having.

Disability or Disorder: Who Decides?

Ultimately it seems appropriate to use the term that seems like a right fit for your child and your family. It’s okay to ask friends, scope the web, and ask doctors and professionals for insight, but ultimately you choose the word and set the tone.

Before any topics get heated, it’s important to remember that other parents have the same choice you do. Their selection of language does not diminish your child’s experience. It is essential to hold space for different viewpoints, even if it can be emotionally triggering.

Further exploring these terms can help people understand each other’s journeys.

What Is Considered a Disorder?

A condition that disrupts your body’s normal functioning is a disorder. “Disorder” is a medical term used to describe a condition like Autism Spectrum Disorder. Autism alters the way the brain develops and how your child communicates with you, others, and the world around them. According to the medical guide officially used in diagnosing autism, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the word “disorder” is used to describe autism and other issues like:

  • Mood Disorders
  • ADHD
  • Intellectual Disability
  • Schizophrenia

These conditions impact an individual’s ability to live an unassisted, natural life. Someone with Borderline Personality Disorder, for example, may need lifelong medical assistance and help to navigate their emotional episodes. It’s important to remember that the term disorder doesn’t necessarily mean these conditions aren’t severe.

Additionally, some of the conditions listed may be mild or hardly apparent. For example, individuals with a depressive disorder may not always be depressed. They may have severe episodes in addition to periods of wellness. A person with ADHD might require additional time to finish an exam because they need time to manage their attention. With these accommodations, they can go on to have careers and full, productive lives. The term disorder is not associated with how serious the problem is or the challenges it brings. Instead, just think of it as a medical term that characterizes a condition.

What Makes Autism a Disability?

A disability is defined as a disorder with legal significance attached. While your pediatrician may call your child’s condition a disorder, a lawyer may refer to it as a disability. Legal experts assess disorders and create lists of conditions that cause expected life-long difficulties. A person with a disability possesses a disorder that is severe enough that they may be entitled to accommodations like:

When looking through legislation on autism, you will see the word disability. This is the case with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Autism is considered a qualifying condition under IDEA. Similarly, it is considered a disability by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) because it severely limits a person’s ability to perform major life activities compared to their peers. For individuals with an autism spectrum disorder to claim disability benefits, they must meet the following criteria:

  • The individual has a condition, like ASD, that the ADA qualifies as severe enough to limit participation in major life activities.
  • The individual has a medical history of their condition.
  • If the individual has no past proven record, they are “regarded as having such an impairment.”

Proof that your child has Autism Spectrum Disorder is insufficient to qualify them as having a legal disability. The severity of symptoms will play a significant role. With that said, legislation and terms like disability aren’t designed to stigmatize your child, limit progress or invalidate anyone. They are meant to connect your child with the support they require to get the proper intervention.

For example, in 2018, only 10 percent of people with disabilities supported by the IDEA were those diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Between 2017 and 2018, 72 percent of students with autism graduated with a diploma from high school.

How Do I Decide Whether Autism Is a Disability or a Disorder?

You might now be thinking, where is my child on that scale? How severe are my child’s symptoms? How can I better accommodate them? Are they disabled? Do they just have a disorder? Do we qualify for any coverage or respite?

Which phrase feels like it best characterizes your circumstances? Everyone has to decide for themselves what terminology suits their needs. At the end of the day, it’s not words that matter so much as actions. In other words, are you getting the help you need to give your autistic child the best life possible?

Autism and ABA Centers of America

Studies suggest that early intervention in autism (usually ages 2-5) leads to better play skills, social skills, and interactions. It helps to foster learning in all kinds of circumstances. And there are many more benefits of ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) therapy. If you would like to learn more about us and our evidence-based approach to helping families with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, give us a call at 844-923-4222 or visit us at

Discover how our autism treatment services can help you.

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