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Is Autism a Disability? Here’s What You Must Know

June 21, 2024

“Is autism a disability?” Wondered Julia, who was sitting across from her 8-year-old nonverbal autistic son. She saw the frustration in his eyes – he wanted to communicate but couldn’t. While observing his challenges, she couldn’t help but wonder whether autism was a disability.

If it’s not a disability, then what is autism? Is it a disorder? Or is it simply a different way of responding to the world around us? These are questions many parents ask, as well as people on the spectrum themselves. In this article, we’ll try to answer them.

Is Autism a Disability? Here's What You Must Know

What is Considered a Disability?

To comprehend the relationship between autism and disability, it’s crucial to define disability first. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) gives the following as a legal definition: “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.”

On the other hand, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gives the following medical definition of a disability: “any condition of the body or mind (impairment) that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities (activity limitation) and interact with the world around them (participation restrictions).

If one wants to distinguish whether or not autism is a disability, one needs to look at the characteristics of autism. NIMH states that ASD is a developmental disorder because symptoms usually occur during the first two years of development.

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It affects a child’s communication and behavior, and the types of symptoms span a wide range, some being more severe than others. ASD is the umbrella that includes autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), and Asperger syndrome.

A child with autism could present with some of the following:

  • Very little eye contact
  • The child may not look at or listen to others.
  • He/she may be disinterested in other people or in objects that are singled out, or they may be interested in others but lacking the skills to socialize with them
  • The child may not respond to someone who is trying to get his/her attention.
  • The child may have difficulty with conversation exchanges
  • The child may talk about a favorite topic to a heightened degree
  • The child may have a flat vocal tone or facial expressions that don’t correspond with his/her words
  • They may repeat words or phrases
  • They may have trouble expressing his/her needs or feelings
  • They may hone in on parts of something and how they work
  • They may be overly sensitive to sounds, lights, textures, or temperatures
  • They may have sleep problems and irritability
  • They may have had certain skills but then lost the ability to use those skills at a later time

What is Autism?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain. It affects how a person communicates, interacts with others, and experiences the world.

Autism is characterized by a wide spectrum of symptoms and behaviors, ranging from mild to severe. There are no two individuals on the spectrum who are the same, which makes this condition highly diverse. The spectrum encompasses a range of abilities, challenges, and traits.

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What Causes Autism in Children?

While there is no definitive cause of autism in children, scientists agree that genetics can be a factor in some cases. A child who has a sibling with autism has a higher risk. Also, a child born prematurely, having low weight at birth, or having been exposed to lead can have a higher chance of developmental issues, and it is thought they should be screened for ASD.

There are a variety of developmental screenings for autism. In some cases, a checklist of milestones may be used with input from parents, grandparents, and early childhood caregivers. Also, the pediatrician should look for any delays at the child’s well-visit.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends doing a behavioral and developmental screening at 9, 18, and 30 months and a specific screening for ASD at 18 and 24 months.

If a child has any of the risk factors mentioned previously or if a child shows any signs during the developmental screening, additional screening may be recommended.

This could be an evaluation with a developmental pediatrician, a child psychologist, or a psychiatrist to check brain development. For behavioral issues, a neuropsychologist for any neurodevelopmental issues and/or a speech-language pathologist to see if there are any communication difficulties.

In the case of an older child whose parents and teachers are beginning to see signs of concern, a child study or special education team may do the testing and evaluation, with the team suggesting the child see a doctor for more evaluations.

The earlier a child is diagnosed, the better since studies show that early intervention can provide help with communication and life skills while building upon the strong qualities the child already has.

Is Autism a Disability and Does it Influence Learning?

A person with autism doesn’t necessarily have an intellectual disability. Unfortunately, sometimes, children with ASD who aren’t verbally communicating may be assumed to have an intellectual disability.

During the 1980s, 69% of people with autism had a co-diagnosis of intellectual disability. When the research began to hone the criteria for diagnosing autism, the number of children having both diagnoses went down, and in 2014 it was at 30%.

The misdiagnosis could be that the genes that cause autism also cause intellectual disabilities. While intellectual disabilities can include some social issues, autism doesn’t necessarily include intellectual disabilities.

An IQ test at the time of an autism screening would help make that distinction, but there may be a need for a nonverbal intelligence test. A 2007 study published in Sage Journals had 38 children with autism take a nonverbal intelligence test and a test for people with “typical verbal skills.” The children scored an average of 30 points higher on the nonverbal test.

Many children with autism spectrum disorder can learn and remember details, and they may excel in subjects such as math and science or in creative realms such as music and art.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), a part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), supports research for autism spectrum disorder through the Autism Centers of Excellence (ACE) to find the causes and treatments for this. Some ACE centers look at the various risks and factors that occur during pregnancy and in the early stages of an infant’s life, such as genetics, neurological components of brain development and performance, and physical and even environmental facets.

NINDS is also using some brain imaging studies to compare people with and without ASD to understand the differences in the nervous systems and possibly come up with helpful approaches or treatments.

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Types of Challenges in Autism

Although individuals with autism are all unique, some challenges are common for people on the spectrum. The most common ones include:

  • Communication challenges: Many individuals with autism struggle with expressive and receptive communication, which can impede their ability to convey thoughts and emotions effectively.
  • Sensory challenges: Sensory sensitivities are common among individuals with autism. Hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity to sensory stimuli can significantly impact daily functioning.
  • Social challenges: Difficulties in social interaction and understanding social cues can lead to isolation and hinder building meaningful relationships.
  • Cognitive challenges: Some individuals with autism may face cognitive challenges, affecting their ability to process information, solve problems, or engage in complex tasks.

Strategies for Support

Although navigating autism can be very challenging both for parents and children on the spectrum, some strategies for support can make this journey a bit easier for everyone involved. Instead of wondering, “Is autism a disability?” let’s focus on how we can help children on the spectrum feel better about the world around them.

Early Intervention

Early diagnosis and intervention are crucial in helping children with autism overcome potential difficulties. Early therapies and specialized education programs can provide essential tools for enhancing communication, social skills, and adaptive behavior.

Individualized Education Plans (IEPs)

Individualized Education Plans are tailored programs designed to meet the specific needs of students with autism. These plans aim to provide appropriate accommodations and support in educational settings.

Sensory-Friendly Environments

Creating sensory-friendly environments in schools, workplaces, and public spaces can greatly benefit children with autism. This includes minimizing sensory overload and providing sensory tools and spaces.


So, is autism a disability? It doesn’t really matter. Whether a child with autism spectrum disorder is considered to have a disorder or a disability, the most important factor is to get help and services as early as possible. With the right support, all children have the potential to offer something to the world around them in some capacity. 


Q: Is autism a disease?

A: No, autism is not a disease. It is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects social communication and behavior.

Q: Can autism be diagnosed in adulthood?

A: Yes, autism can be diagnosed in adulthood. However, early diagnosis and intervention are very helpful.

Q: What are some common therapies for autism?

A: Common therapies include Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), speech therapy, and occupational therapy.

Q: How can I support a family with an autistic child?

A: Offer understanding and support, educate yourself about autism, and be patient and inclusive.

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