Is Autism a Disability?

In this article...
  • Autism is a disability under the ADA. Some adults and children with autism can access Social Security benefits, including disability benefits and SSI. Find out more about autism in our disability benefits review.

If you or a loved one is living with autism, you may be wondering what rights autistic people have under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Perhaps you want to know if autism qualifies for disability benefits from the Social Security Administration.

Individuals with autism may be eligible for government assistance. Understanding how to navigate these potential options can help people access these services.

Continue reading as we explore autism and disability.

What Is Autism?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental disorder that usually appears in early childhood and affects people differently. It's characterized by differences in the brain that cause social and communication skills and behavioral challenges. 

Some people have mild autism that has a minimal impact. Conversely, severe autism means an individual may have minimal communication and language abilities. 

Autism, Asperger Syndrome (AS), and Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD-NOS) are three conditions that fall within the autism spectrum. 

Although there's no cure, research shows that diagnosis and early intervention have considerable long-term positive effects on symptoms and later skills. Even children under two years old can be diagnosed with ASD in some cases.

How Do Doctors Make a Diagnosis of Autism?

When a doctor diagnoses autism, there are no blood tests or imaging studies they can use. Instead, they have to observe the adult or child with autism to see if their behavior and development meets the diagnostic guidelines of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. 

Doctors look for what's known as the autism triad when they diagnose someone. If someone has difficulty with social interactions, verbal and non-verbal communication and demonstrates rigid thoughts and repetitive behaviors, an autism spectrum diagnosis is likely.

Is Autism a Disability Under the ADA?

Yes, it is. The Americans with Disability Act (ADA) is the primary law protecting the rights of people with all disabilities, including autism. It offers civil rights protections to people with autism and guarantees equal employment opportunities, government services and more.

How Can Employers Best Work With Autistic People?

Under the ADA, businesses with 15 or more employees cannot discriminate against someone with autism. These rules apply in every aspect of employment, from job applications and hiring to training and privileges and leaving the job.  

Employers must also provide reasonable support to employees with autism, including any special equipment that allows them to do their job. Employers don't have to provide accommodations that would be extremely difficult or costly, however. No matter the support the autistic person needs, they still must perform their job effectively.  

Working with adults with autism can be an enriching experience for employers if they work to overcome potential challenges in the workplace. 

Examples of helpful practices:

  • Clarify expectations of the job: Be explicit about expectations and explain any unwritten rules. 

  • Provide training and monitoring: Informal, clear and well-structured training is invaluable.

  • Ensure instructions are concise and specific: Offer clear instructions and don't assume an autistic person can infer.

  • Ensure the work environment is well-structured: People may appreciate help to prioritize and organize tasks and set break times. Let the person know in advance of any changes.

  • Provide direct feedback: Be sensitive but honest, constructive and consistent. Give positive feedback when appropriate. 

  • Ask about sensory distractions: Screening and noise-canceling headphones can be helpful. 

How Does Social Security Disability Work With an Autism Diagnosis?

The Social Security Administration (SSA) provides two benefits for individuals with disabilities: 

Social Security Disability Income (SSDI)

SSDI supports people who worked previously but who had to stop working due to disability. The SSA bases this benefit on the individual's income before they became disabled. They may also base it on the person's parental income if the disability began before age 22. 

Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

SSI helps disabled people with low incomes. Families can apply for SSI for children with autism to help them pay for the additional resources the child needs. People receiving SSI may also qualify for medical benefits, including Medicaid and Medicare

Qualification doesn't depend on someone's previous employment. Rather it depends on household income and resources.

The amount someone receives each month for their SSI benefit differs between states, with some states supplementing the amount for children with autism. 

There are strict qualification criteria for children with autism listed in Section 112.10 of the blue book. Parents will need to provide thorough documentation that their child has social interaction, communication and behavioral patterns that severely limit their normal function. 

The SSA reviews the child's health around every three years, until age 18. At this point, adult rules apply, although the SSI coverage may continue. 

Takeaway

Autism is a spectrum disorder and disability that affects people to different extents. Early diagnosis and intervention can have lasting positive effects. 

The Americans with Disability Act protects people with autism and allows them equal access to employment, government services, and more. 

People with autism may qualify for SSDI benefit if they have worked previously or SSI benefit if they have a low income. 

About the Author

Zia Sherrell is a digital health journalist with over a decade of healthcare experience, a bachelor’s degree in science from the University of Leeds and a master’s degree in public health from the University of Manchester. Her work has appeared in Netdoctor, Medical News Today, Healthline, Business Insider, Cosmopolitan, Yahoo, Harper's Bazaar, Men's Health and more.

When she’s not typing madly, Zia enjoys traveling and chasing after her dogs.

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