Deficit-model feeds anti-Autistic prejudice

[Originally posted on June 24, 2009, as a comment on Helene Guldberg’s Psychology Today article, “How the quack industry harms autistic children,” an interview with Michael Fitzpatrick, discussing his book, Defeating Autism: A Damaging Delusion.]

Not a bad article – especially in contrast to the kind of “information” that currently dominates popular opinion on the topic of autism.

Unfortunately, it does not go nearly far enough into the question of harm, because it proceeds solely from the narrow “deficit model” of autism. Lacking what is sometimes referred to in academia as “the sociological perspective,” such discussions cannot approach the issues that have, by far, the most devastating impact on quality of life, not only for children, but for all Autistics.

There is no question that some of the medical and developmental issues often associated with autism can be debilitating in and of themselves. Nevertheless, this is only one part of the picture. What is being almost universally overlooked is the seemingly obvious fact that misinformation, stereotypes, stigma, and widespread cultural prejudice against human diversity are not symptoms of autism. These phenomena, which operate in the much wider medium of society at large, obviously taint autism science and make parents and Autistics victims of fear and exploitation, but that’s not all. The culture-wide propagation of misinformation and the social construction of anti-Autistic prejudice loops back around to impact on the day-to-day lives of all Autistics in deeply pernicious and suffocating ways that even “experts” are ill-prepared to recognize. Day after day, at the hands of the general public, Autistics face direct expressions of fear, pity, dehumanization, manipulation, bullying, abuse, and denial of any or every form of opportunity, no matter how well earned. These are all constant hazards to every Autistic citizen on the planet.

But none of this is in any way intrinsic to autism itself. This does not “come with” autism. This is what is done to autistics. And, for the vast bulk of Autistic citizens, the effects of widespread misinformation and prejudice are far more broadly debilitating than anything that is actually part of autism itself.

Like it or not, professionals and researchers are at the forefront of this problem. Proceeding almost exclusively from a deficit model, they have no tools with which to contribute to the solution — indeed, they may well lack the conceptual vocabulary necessary to even begin to recognize the depth and scope of the problem. Without the benefit of a “sociological perspective” — without a grasp of the much more devastating impact of socially constructed prejudice — professionals are scarcely even in a position to prevent themselves from harming Autistics, to say nothing of helping.

I think the Autistic community deserves better.


4 Responses to Deficit-model feeds anti-Autistic prejudice

  1. Gonzo says:



    Damn, how well said.

    “This does not “come with” autism. This is what is done to autistics.”
    Hell yes, and this is so my pet peeve when ignoramuses think mistreatment is a part of autism.
    I recently quoted a pro-cure person on a blog post who said this:
    “My friend with autism has been robbed, abandoned, starved, beaten, and raped. He has no defense – so he is a victim. He needs a cure.”
    It’s just so embarrassingly stupid.
    No one would say women need to be cured of being female, because we’re much more likely to get raped.

  2. Socrates says:

    Very well said.

  3. Anemone says:

    A very good comment. It balances the article nicely. Researchers and professionals lacking the tools to deal with the social aspects of disability is a good way of putting it. Not part of their training, I guess.

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