Is Autism a disorder or a difference?
Jen Blacow Operations Manager, Aspiedent CIC
2nd July 2020
If you have ever heard of Autistic Spectrum Disorder (or ASD), I think you will have heard phrases such as ‘autistic people are really good at IT’, ‘autistic people are highly intelligent’, and/or that ‘people with autism have special skills and abilities’. Another common one is that ‘autistic people’s brains are just wired differently’.
This can be really confusing though, as the word ‘disorder’, implies that something is not functioning correctly. Something is not in order… something is wrong!
So is autism a difference or a disorder?
Indeed, Greta Thunberg has stated that her autism is a ‘superpower’. But there are also parents of children with autism with severe issues and/or extremely challenging symptoms. These parents are understandably extremely concerned about autism being classified as some sort of neurodevelopmental superiority.
To classify autism as a ‘superpower’ could trivialise the difficulties some autistic people and families face, and implies that people with autism are not in need of support. I mean really, why would somebody who claims their autism is a superpower need to be in receipt of disability benefits and support? It does not compute.
Most probably, the truth lies somewhere in the middle and varies from individual to individual and from circumstance to circumstance.
Each person’s autism is different, with a different combination of underlying issues. Under some circumstances, autism can be a useful difference, but in others, it is a very real disability – a disorder if you like.
I once asked Dr Elizabeth Guest, who is very clever and resourceful, but who has severe sensory issues, poor social communication skills and many difficulties navigating everyday life, whether her autism was a blessing or a curse. She told me that it was a double-edged sword, and that kind of makes sense.
The same autistic trait can be both a curse and a blessing depending on the situation. Sometimes, a coping strategy to overcome a difficulty, works to the autistic person’s advantage in making them excel at what they do. But it is a coping strategy for an underlying ‘disorder’.
Let us consider a few traits.
There are autistic people, who like the majority of the population have a strong desire to connect emotionally with people and to fit in.
For example, Tom. Tom is ‘normal’ in many ways. But he cannot master social chit chat well enough to not inadvertently offend people and alienate himself completely from peers. His peers find his attempts at making friends off-putting.
Can you imagine the pure frustration and distress this causes him when his autism prevents him from ever managing to make friends? Worse, because he is classed as ‘high functioning’ (or ‘mildly autistic’), he is very much expected to be able to function, get a job and make friends without help thank you very much.
But doing this is incredibly difficult for him. So Tom has become both self-hating and bitter at the outside world. In this circumstance, the social communication difficulties that come with autism are really quite disabling for him.
On the other hand, there some are autistic people who have severe difficulties in carrying out normal day to day activities and self-care and mastering speech, for example, but who have a much-reduced desire to connect emotionally and fit in. Such as Julie.
Julie does not have the ability to connect to other people emotionally, and therefore just will not know what she is missing out on. Because her behaviour is outwardly ‘abnormal’, she is classed as ‘severely autistic’ and is entitled to day care.
She lives a relatively content life, because she is not interested in participating in the social world and is quite happy among her stuffed toys, favourite films, and fixed routines. Most people who meet her think she is adorable, and she is a big hit amongst the care staff.
Looking at it from the medical perspective, Julie is more ‘disordered’ compared to Tom. But her enjoyment of life is less severely affected.
It makes you wonder what “disordered” actually means. How does the term ‘quality of life’ fit into this? Would Julie consider herself disordered and not having a good quality of life? Tom certainly sees himself as ‘disordered’ and I am sure would like a significant improvement in his quality of life.
It can go the other way as well. For example, there are autistic people who are highly intelligent thinkers, who are desperate to socially interact and need people contact, but who cannot verbalise their thoughts or control their bodies (their bodies appear to them to have a mind of their own). They are labelled with severe learning disabilities. Just imagine how painful that must be for them!
Complicated, right? And we have not even scratched the surface.
Greta Thunberg, when she was talking about autism being a ‘superpower’ was referring to stereotypical autistic thinking which is logical, systematic, and good at seeing patterns. People like this are good at getting to the heart of the matter and some are good at making complex ideas and systems appear simple. This ability can be an asset. For some people, it is a passport to a job and a career because how they think gives them much sought-after knowledge and skills.
However, this ability can really get in the way of being able to do social interaction, as it does with my Director Elizabeth. Her way thinking is completely different to everyone else, meaning she struggles with even basic social interaction.
In addition, because her way thinking is significantly different to the norm, this leads her to different interests, which in turn provides a barrier to social interaction. Because her way of thinking involves logic and patterns, she is more interested in how things work rather than the latest cultural topic that people are talking about.
In conclusion, the answer to whether autism is a disorder, or a difference is not clear. For some it is a severe disability and for others it is of benefit in some areas of their life but a hindrance in others. But whether it is considered a benefit or a misfortune, depends on the autistic person’s particular combination and interaction of traits, their goals in life, their personality and their particular definition of what a good quality of life is.