The idea of autism being a disability is something that I find rather irritating to a degree. I understand that there are those on the spectrum that are unable to function independently in day to day life and as a result warrant the label of disabled. Yet, there are many among the autistic that are labeled as disabled because of certain traits that I would argue aren’t disabilities unless you are sold on the idea that the neurotypical way is ultimately superior. I happen to think that isn’t the case at all. I think that perhaps in some of these cases we need to consider these things as different skill levels in a certain area and under certain conditions. So in the spirit of making that point, I’m going to look at certain neurotypical traits that I would consider to be a disability and why.
First, the emotional and psychological need for social acceptance and validation has to be one of the greatest disabilities of being neurotypical in terms of how they choose to approach understanding reality. In my experience, most NTs will favor taking a stance on a topic that most aligns with their social circle over using logic and empirical evidence. There seems to be a willingness to abandon rigorous forms of thought if doing so might lead to a change in one’s position that runs counter to their social circle’s stance. For instance it is not at all uncommon for a religious person, whose social position is within a religious group, to push back against logic and evidence that challenges their religious belief. This happens even in the face of contradictory beliefs being pointed out. This is why it is often far easier for a person to leave their faith if their religious community has rejected them. The person is for more accepting of criticism of that belief system because they have no fear of losing their social position.
This is not something many people with autism have to deal with or deal with to the same extreme. In my case I am free to change my view points when superior evidence and arguments are made. I don’t have to fear being ostracized socially. I don’t require social validation. My emotional and mental well being isn’t wrapped up in being accepted. Social acceptance for me is something that, if it is pleasant, is nice and can also have certain utility. This makes it seem as though the NT need for social acceptance and validation debilitates their ability to understand reality based on the best evidence and logic.
The second disability seems to be an obsession with identifying people based on what they see. Many people with autism have heard “You don’t look autistic.” All of the neuronormative issues with this statement aside, why is it that NTs think they can figure out who a person is and what their life experience is based on what a person looks like? We see this in so many areas “He didn’t look like a serial killer”, “She didn’t look like the type to steal”, “He doesn’t look gay”, etc… I understand a person to be their mind. Physical factors can play a role in how that mind develops and how they experience the world, but not everyone that shares certain physical features thinks the same way because of those physical features. Knowing someone requires more than looking at them. This is at the root of so much discrimination and mistreatment of people. Sadly, even those who fight for social justice often fall prey to this line of thinking. They all too often categorize “oppressors” and “oppressed” based on physical characteristics instead of determining it based on who the individual is and what they have experienced, think, and feel.
The last disability I’m going to talk about is small talk. This may be more cultural than neurotypical though as there are cultures in which small talk is not viewed the same as it is in America. Yet, among Americans this is something that NTs seem to do and autistic people often loath. When I have the displeasure of sitting in a room full of strangers my mind is often occupied with things that I find to be important. It could be working on scheduling, working out a more efficient way to manage my time for the day, making a check list for things I need to get done, thinking indepth about something important to me, or reading about something important to me. In other words, I’m doing something with my time that pleases me and is usually constructive. Why can’t NTs do the same? Why must they engage in small talk to be entertained or for some social validation? Why must I stop doing what I’m doing to give that to someone who really doesn’t want to have the kind of conversation I would prefer and really doesn’t care about my day? This is intrusive and waste of mine and their time. I consider it a disability because the practice of small talk wastes time that could be better spent growing as a human being or just better managing their life.
So, there you have it, three things that we could consider a disability in Neurotypical people. There are many more and I am sure many autistic people have a laundry list of things they consider to be a disability in NTs. The big take away from this should be questioning what is a disability. It’s easy for NTs and NT professionals to diagnose certain autistic traits as a disability, but is it really? Some of those features lead to greater strengths depending on the desired outcome one is looking for. If the desired outcome is that autistics “socialize better” based on a NT metric, then sure, perhaps we are disabled. But if the desired outcome is an ability to better understand reality then our lack of social skills based on a NT metric is a strength. Make no mistake, if autistic people were in the majority, NTs would be the disabled ones. Well, provided we fell prey to the same lack of theory of mind, but that is another NT disability for another time.