A Social Model of Neurodiversity at Work

People often ask whether autism (or another neurodivergent condition) is a disability. I’d argue that it is more helpful to ask whether autistic people are disabled (to which my answer would be: in most cases, yes). It may seem a semantic distinction, but it is important: it locates the disablement not in the autistic person’s brain, but in the society they live in and the way the individual and society interact. Autism is not our disability: it may be an impairment, a difference, or some combination. Our disability is the difficulty that arises in our interaction with the specific society in which we live.

A Social Model of Neurodiversity at Work

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self-narrating zoo exhibit

Autistic people have lamented the tendency for others to interrupt our discussions of human rights or other political topics, in order to ask us about our toilet training or sexual histories. This aspect of the self-narrating zoo exhibit phenomenon has caused many autistics to give up mentioning our autism altogether in some contexts, to avoid the inevitable barrage of questions.

Another aspect of this is our role in autism organizations. Entire conferences have been arranged around autism, with autistic people playing a role only insofar as we can stand up and explain the way our senses and minds work. Veering too far off of this topic — or even away from the conventional wisdom on this topic — is a good way to become ostracized. Autistic people have paid heavy prices for becoming politically involved or questioning dubious treatments rather than simply describing ourselves and letting others do the talking. Those who could not praise us more five seconds ago, suddenly tell us we are terrible people who may not even be autistic. Some have gone so far as to publicly slander prominent autistic individuals.

self-narrating zoo exhibit