As October comes to a close, so does the monthly observance known as National Disability Employment Awareness Month. This year’s theme selected by the Office of Disability Employment Policy was “Advancing Access and Equity.” According to the Autism Society, adults with Autism are represented in every field of employment.

In this Q&A article featuring Dr. Amy Latta, a psychologist advisor for Magellan Healthcare, we explore the question – is Autism a disability?  Dr. Latta shares her thoughts on this question below.

Q: Is autism considered a disability (from social, legal, and medical viewpoints)?

Dr. Latta: The medical and legal perspectives both view Autism as a disability. The disability is created when the individual’s impairments (social communication and social interaction, as well as restricted interests, behaviors, or activities) interfere with daily functioning.

In contrast, a social perspective views the individual with Autism as “neurodivergent”  or having a brain style that is simply different from the average or “neurotypical” person in society.  From this perspective, Autism is not a disability. The disability is created by society’s lack of acceptance of an individual with a different or “neurodivergent” brain style. Within this framework, as society becomes more inclusive of persons with Autism and adapts better to their needs, the disability fades.

Q: How do you discuss neurodivergence with a child with autism?

Dr. Latta: If you ask a group of children to draw a person enjoying something fun, do you think all the pictures will look the same? Would anyone’s drawing be the “right” drawing or the “wrong” drawing? That is neurodivergence. It means everyone’s brain functions differently. There is no right or wrong way.

Q: Please briefly outline state government disability benefits people with autism can take advantage of.

Dr. Latta: Social Security Administration’s (SSA) administers the Social Security Income (SSI) program, which provides financial assistance to children and adults with Autism. In order to meet eligibility for SSI, there are income limits and medical requirements (e.g., symptoms of Autism need to be severe enough).

Q: How does getting disability benefits differ for children and adults (especially for parents with teens about to turn 18 – do they need to go through the process of conservatorship before the 18th birthday or will their child need to show financial responsibility, such as a job or paying rent, to get the full amount of disability)?

Dr. Latta: A child (under age 18) with Autism may qualify for Social Security Income (SSI) if the symptoms of Autism are severe enough and the parents’ income does not exceed the income limit. The income limit increases with each additional child under age 18 in the family.

Once a child with Autism turns 18, the parents’ income is no longer counted (even if the child is living at home) in the calculation for SSI benefits.

If a child is going to turn 18 and needs help making life decisions as an adult, the family may want to consider providing support to the child after age 18 through guardianship, conservatorship, or power of attorney. Guardianship and conservatorship are more involved legal processes so the family will want to start this process six months before the child turns 18.

Guardianship: A trusted adult is court-ordered by a judge to make decisions on behalf of the individual. There are full and partial guardians. A full guardian can make decisions about all areas of an individual’s life. A partial guardian can make decisions about select areas of an individual’s life.

Conservatorship: A trusted adult is court-ordered by a judge to make decisions about financial affairs only.

Power of Attorney: Is a legal document that authorizes a trusted adult to make decisions about the individual’s property, finances, or medical care. Under a POA, the individual still retains the right to make decisions on his or her behalf.