Aspergers-disability or difference?

Amongst the Aspergers community online, there is a lot of debate as to whether Aspergers should be considered as a disability or merely as a neurological variation which may not be typical but certainly does not cause issues serious enough to be disabling. A member of the Facebook group “Adults With Aspergers Syndrome” suggested that I write a blog post on it so this is what this week’s post will be about.

My personal view is that it can be both a disability and simply a difference, depending on the issues it is causing. I have sat in meetings of Aspergers social groups where one person will describe it as a disability and another will point out that they don’t feel disabled in any way. For me, personally, it depends on how my general mood is. It is hard for me to view it as simply a difference when my anxiety level is so high at the thought of calling a taxi that I walk the 30 minutes home alone in pitch darkness instead (this happened quite a lot up to a couple of years ago but I am a lot better at calling taxis now). Trying so hard to understand social cues only to fail miserably on a daily basis certainly feels disabling to me. Not being able to follow 2 conversations at once without experiencing pain or distress IS disabling in a social situation. I guess this is the crux of the issue-we are only disabled when placed in situations that highlight our social problems. I think this is why academia appeals a lot to people on what is clinically described as the higher functioning end of the spectrum. Success in academia depends primarily on knowledge, a passion for learning and a good memory-all of which are attributes that a lot of people with Aspergers have. If you take a hypothetical person with Aspergers who excels intellectually and put them in a university lecture theatre, you will probably find that they like to answer questions, have a keen attention to detail, always keep to deadlines and generally do exceptionally well throughout their degree course and beyond-a model student. Take the same person and put them in a crowded social gathering and you might find that they appear completely different-anxious and agitated. Crowded social gatherings demand good social skills, the ability to weave in and out of different conversations, the ability to make “small talk” and the neurological ability to filter different sounds so that you only focus on what is considered to be the most important sound, the person talking to you, rather than also focusing on the ticking of the clock or the creaking of the door opening and closing every few minutes. This may not make much sense but what I am trying to illustrate is that, in the first situation, Aspergers is a positive aspect of this student’s life as it is enabling them to flourish academically. It is a neurological variation that works for them. In the second situation, the problems caused by Aspergers are likely to leave them feeling isolated and distressed and so, if asked at that time whether they considered Aspergers to be a disability, they would probably answer “Yes”. 

People with Aspergers find that there are a lot of positive aspects that their own specific neurological wiring brings to their life. A lot of people with Aspergers can be very logical thinkers and can see tiny details that others will miss in situations. This can lead to discoveries being made and problems being solved. Our experiences of growing up with limited expectations placed on us due to other people’s misconceptions of what Aspergers is means that most of us are extremely determined to achieve our goals and will not give up until they are reached, despite the depression and anxiety that can often be present in adults with Aspergers. I personally find that my own experiences of growing up with Aspergers have made me more willing to give people chances. I know what it feels like to be told that something is beyond me so I try never to say that to people although I know better than to give false hope too. There are things in life that are beyond the limits of certain people and that is normal-what I am saying is that people should try and achieve their dreams or goals a few times first before deciding that it’s beyond them, if that is the case.

I know that some people with Aspergers are so against the idea of being seen as disabled that they can show strong opinions towards those with Aspergers who choose to describe themselves in this way. My personal opinion is that it should not matter. There are valid reasons why someone with Aspergers may consider themselves disabled and quite a few of these reasons are related to separate mental health conditions that occur as a result of growing up in a world which our brains and personalities struggle to comprehend and fit in to rather than as a result of Aspergers itself. If someone suffers with chronic anxiety issues to the extent where they feel unable to leave their house or communicate with anyone, does another person have the right to tell them that they should not consider themselves disabled? If someone lives in a state of profound depression and is overwhelmed daily by feelings of self loathing and despair, does a person who also has Aspergers but has a more positive experience of it have the right to tell them that it is not a disability?

I conclude with a final thought-does it have to be one or the other? I believe that, in many people, including myself, both views can be present. Aspects of my Aspergers are disabling in certain situations or when I am in a low mood but, most of the time, I consider it as just a difference. It is simply the way my brain is wired and has been from foetal development (that’s what I believe anyway-I know there is a lot of theories about what exactly causes Aspergers and other conditions on the autistic spectrum but my belief in my personal case is that my Aspergers was present before birth). I didn’t have a choice in it and I didn’t have any control over it but it’s not such a bad condition to live with. Sometimes it does get me down but then everyone gets down over something in their lives-if it wasn’t Aspergers, it would be something else. My belief is that it is both disability and difference depending on context and societal attitudes. If people were more willing to tolerate our social mistakes and speak to us about them rather than isolating us after we make mistakes, we wouldn’t feel half as low as most of us do.




One Response to Aspergers-disability or difference?

  1. bjforshaw says:

    I guess this is the crux of the issue-we are only disabled when placed in situations that highlight our social problems.

    I agree with this totally. Many conditions only become disabilities in particular contexts, and this includes physical conditions as well as neurological/psychological. A person in a wheelchair cannot easily negotiate stairs; an autistic person cannot easily negotiate a social interaction.

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