Now for another question…Is ASD a “disability?” Are those with ASD “handicapped?”
More than likely, people have perceptions of these terms that are extremely varied and potentially volatile. To adequately address this question, we need to first look at the abilities of people with ASD. I’ve heard the term, “differently-abled” to indicate those whose bodies or brains function differently than the majority. Certainly, those with ASD are in fact differently-abled. Their abilities often inspire awe and admiration in those who interact with them, from their often excellent memory for facts and statistics, to their ability to view life from a unique perspective, to their tendency to take people at face value, without judging them or forming prejudices.
But do their differences constitute a disability or handicap? Certainly, a practical and legal argument can be presented to enable many people with ASD to receive funding or services designated for those with disabilities. In this sense, ASD technically constitutes a disability, especially when an individual fits the dictionary definition of having a condition that “prevents normal achievement in a particular area.” Many people have benefitted from such services, and in fact, could not function successfully without them. Others function at a level where such services are not necessary (or are no longer needed). Perhaps they would even fit the description for “recovery,” which is an area of current research which I personally find very interesting.
But beyond examining the practical and legal application of the term “disability” to people with ASD, I believe it is also important to view this topic through the lens of social understanding. Years ago I had written an article, “Balancing the social teeter-totter,” where I noted that when the scales are tipped in favor of those who are “neuro-typical,” leaving those with ASD at a disadvantage, we all bear the responsibility for stepping in and balancing that social teeter totter. This is where understanding, strategies, accommodations, and genuine kindness come in. We can all make a positive difference in the lives of those around us, even to the point where individuals with ASD do not have to feel as though they are disabled or handicapped, but where their needs are met and their strengths are celebrated, and they are appreciated for who they are.
Here’s an additional thought to ponder: I once read an inspiring article about Scott Southworth, a US soldier who adopted a young boy with cerebral palsy from Iraq after his tour of duty there ended (Guideposts, July 2008). Although as a young single man, Southworth had been advised against taking on such a huge responsibility, he said he was relishing his role as a dad and an advocate. He summed up the question of differing abilities through his own definition of being “handicapped,” about which he says, “Being mean-spirited or hateful—those are the real handicaps. Love is what matters.” Southworth’s definition shows that there are many people in this world who do not have ASD, but are more “handicapped” than those who do. (I recommend that you read an update on Scott Southworth and all that he has accomplished--and the many benefits he has enjoyed-- through his act of kindness!)
Being helpful and kind can go a long way toward assisting others to live “ably.” It’s important work you’re doing as you promote personal and interpersonal growth all around the world—and many people are benefiting from it!