Monday 26 February 2018

Different Ability or Disability?

In recent weeks I've been drawn into the discussion about whether or not having a diagnosis of Autism means that an individual is classed as being disabled.

Our superhero family views autism as a different ability. Both O and L are amazing in what they can and have achieved. Their autism may slow them down but it certainly doesn't hold them back.

Both O and L require support and therapy and to be eligible to receive the support and therapy that they need, autism is classed as a disability. To be eligible for the funding to pay for the support and therapy that they both need at school and in every day life, autism is classed as a disability. Therefore having a diagnosis of autism by medical/funding/government definition means that an individual with autism is classed as having a disability.

However .... if you ask O or L if they are disabled, you will get a resounding no!

Their experience with individuals with disabilities are those that are missing limbs, are in wheelchairs, have cerebral palsy, are sight impaired and have a seeing eye dog - disabilities that are very obvious. When myself or my husband have spoken to O and L in the past about autism being classed as a disability, due to their literalness they themselves don't see their autism as a disability because it does not fit their idea or life experience of a disability.

At the age of 7 years O informed me that having autism means that she has a different ability to her friends.

Both O and L struggle in some areas but in other areas, their skills, abilities and knowledge surpasses that of their peers. Hence our view that autism is a different ability. This is what they both identify with.

They are both very capable and have achieved great things so far in their 8 and 5 years respectively. Last year at school O was awarded 7 honour certificates throughout the year and received an end of year award at the school concert.

The term "different ability" appears to be, as I have recently found out, a contentious issue amongst adults who have been diagnosed with autism. The issue seems to be that the term "different ability" implies that an individual is not capable of achieving to the best of their abilities or that they lack the ability to achieve. Many autistic adults want society to stop viewing autism as a different ability, and start viewing it as a disability.

The number of times that I have been told by autistic adults that I have to stop referring to autism as a different ability and remind my children that they are in fact disabled is getting rather silly.

Having a disability, regardless of what it is, should not stop an individual from achieving to the best of their ability. The disability may slow them down and it may mean that they need to come at their dreams from a different angle or they may need to work a little harder.

Our experience with others perceptions of autism and disabilities in general is that we've been told "but they're normal looking, there's nothing wrong with them" or "the funding needs to be given to those that truly need it. Autistic individuals need to suck it up and get on with life." And if you mention that they have a disability, the voice becomes slower or the assumption is made that O and L are not capable of achieving anything as unfortunately in our society there is still a stigma attached to having a disability.

I think at times we read too much into what a term means. For us, "different ability" simply means what it says - O and L have different abilities to others. It doesn't make them any less or any better than their peers, it just makes them different. And different is good.

After engaging in these discussions, I came across an article on a New Zealand news site.

In 2017, new words were created in a Māori glossary for use in relation to disability issues and I think that the word that was created is wonderful as the meaning behind the word fits our idea of autism.

"Disabled" has been translated as "whaikaha" which means strength, to have ability, otherly abled and enabled.


Mr Keri Opai, strategic lead for Te Pou o te Whakaaro Nui - the national centre of mental health research, information and workforce development - headed the development of the glossary and has said that the word was created with the Māori disabled community and had a deliberate emphasis on gaining strength and ability.

The new Māori word for disabled, fits how O and L view themselves. That autism, while classed as a disability, means that they have a different ability.

Children the world over are the future leaders. We should be listening to how they view themselves not telling them that their ideas are ridiculous. 

So to those adults who want me to discourage O and L from viewing their autism as a different ability ..... no, no I won't. If our children view themselves as having a different ability, then that is how it is. There are enough obstacles for children to jump over or climb through on this journey called life, I'm not going to add another one.

Autism certainly hasn't held up O or L thus far, it has slowed them down and we've made little detours on the way, but it has not stopped them from achieving to the best of their ability. So for the foreseeable future, we'll continue to refer to autism as a different ability.

And on a side note the Māori word for autism is '"takiwatanga" and is translated as "in his or her own time and space!" Wow again.


  1. I love this positive spin you put on something others may view as a hardship. Everyone is different and people with autism have their own special challenges but with it comes joys and I love that you're instilling this in your children. What an awesome perspective.

  2. Hi Jenni, I completely agree with you, I have friends who have autistic kids and while they have their own learning challenges they are definitely not disabled. They just learn differently and have their own way of doing things.

  3. I love this sentiment! As a teacher I always recommend people push for the diagnosis simply because of the funding and support that they will receive. Although I know a lot of people are really hesitant and worry about the 'label'. But it is what you make it, right? Lovely post.


  4. I am working with a lot of kids and even those that are severely autistic I would not call them disabled. I like your reference to autism as a different ability

  5. I always feel so positive after reading your posts! Your perspective is so amazing.. My mom works closely with many autistic children. She says it is hard work sometimes but so rewarding and she loves what she does.


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