Autism rights movement

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The autism rights movement is a civil rights movement arguing for greater acceptance of autistic spectrum conditions such as autism and Asperger's syndrome as normal and acceptable ways of being rather than as mental disorders or disabilities.

Organizations active in the autism rights movement include Autism Network International,[1] the Autistic Self Advocacy Network,[2] and Aspies For Freedom.[3] Autism rights is part of the larger autism advocacy movement, which promotes greater awareness and understanding of autism, but autism rights groups strongly disagree with other autism advocacy and research groups such as the Autism Research Institute[4] and Autism Speaks[5] on issues of prevention and treatment.


The autism rights movement promotes the concept of "neurodiversity", a diversity of neural patterns, and opposes the more common understanding (both within and outside the medical community) that there is a "normal" mental standard and that aberrations from this standard (including autism, Asperger's syndrome, and sometimes also non-autistic neurological conditions) are disorders which must be treated or prevented. Autism rights and neurodiversity advocates see the traditional conception of normal and abnormal conditions as an example of privilege and discrimination, and draw parallels with other movements for greater acceptance of diversity, such as the LGBT rights movement.

The neurodiversity movement has grown beyond autism rights and been embraced by people with other conditions, including ADHD, dyslexia, Tourette's syndrome and bipolar disorder,[6] seeking acceptance of these conditions as normal rather than dysfunctional ways of being.[7]

Neurodiversity proponents acknowledge that many autistic individuals require specialized support because of their autism, and that autism can be a disabling condition. However, they argue that this support should treat autistic people's experiences and self-expression with respect, rejecting interventions that train autistic people to "pass as neurotypical" by suppressing traits that are not actually harmful to themselves or others.

Attitudes to classification, treatment and research[edit]

As well as opposing the classification of autism as a disorder, autism rights groups also oppose research into the causes of autism, especially research aimed at preventing the incidence of autism, sometimes even comparing this to genocide. Some within the autism rights community oppose various kinds of treatment and therapy for autistic people (or even all kinds), seeing these as unnecessary attempts to normalize autistic behaviour. To be fair there are a fair bit of quacks out there that are all too willing to subject autistic persons (especially children) to rather tortuous regimes.[8]

When autism researcher Dr Joseph Buxbaum predicted in 2005 that there could be a prenatal test for autism within the next ten years, an autism right advocate responded by publishing an "Autistic Genocide Clock" on their website, which counted down the "estimated time remaining before prenatal testing and routine abortion".[9] This clock became a popular talking point within the autistic rights community, but has now been removed since the prenatal testing Dr Buxbaum predicted has not yet been achieved.

Awareness and Acceptance Months[edit]

Another example of the schism between the autism rights movement and other autism advocacy groups is the campaign and counter-campaign to mark April as a day of autism awareness and acceptance.

World Autism Awareness Day, on 2 April, has been observed since 1990 when it was established by a United Nations resolution. World Autism Awareness Day promotes greater education and understanding of autism, but also greater concern about it as a growing world public health crisis. It is supported by groups such as Autism Speaks, who now promote it with the phrase "Light It Up Blue" and have designated April as Autism Awareness Month in the United States.[10]

Autism rights groups such as the Autistic Self Advocacy Network oppose World Autism Awareness Day's focus on autism prevention and cure, and also perceive its messages about autism as patronizing and demeaning to autistic people. Instead they campaign to "take back April" as Autism Acceptance Month, a time to celebrate autism as a natural variation and autistic people for their contributions to society.[11]

Neurotypicality and allism[edit]

"Neurotypical" (NT) and "allistic" are both used within the autism advocacy and autism rights movements to refer to non-autistic people. "Neurotypical" is the more common term, at least outside the autism rights movement, and the more self-explanatory since it refers to people who are neurologically typical. However, many autism rights advocates feel that this term marginalizes autistic people and reinforces the idea that they are defective and sub-normal. Additionally, the term "neurotypical" has more recently been used to include a variety of conditions apart from autism, on the basis that someone with epilepsy or bipolar disorder is technically not "neurologically typical". When referring specifically to non-autistic people, "allistic" is therefore a more precise term than "neurotypical".

"Allism" is a term coined in 2003 by Andrew Main, an autistic individual who wrote a parody medical paper identifying allism as "a congenital neurological disorder adversely affecting many areas of brain function".[12] By reversing the accepted views and presenting autism as the norm and allism (i.e. neurotypicality) as the disorder, he challenged the way society views autistic people. Regarding the etymology, he explained:[12]

The word "allism", invented for this article, is intended to precisely complement "autism". It is based on the Greek word "allos", meaning "other", just as "autos" (in "autism") means "self".

The term "allism" has become very popular within the autism rights movement, and also caught on elsewhere in the world of identity politics and social justice advocacy, as a nonjudgmental way of defining people's neurological condition. The ironical attitude to the issue which Main promoted is still perpetuated in websites such as Allism Speaks (a parody of Autism Speaks), a blog which sarcastically mocks and patronises allistic people and their "struggles with allism".[13]


Critics of the movement argue that anyone on the autism spectrum who is able to express their desire not to be cured must have Asperger syndrome.[14] Lenny Schafer argues that if every use of autism were changed to read Asperger syndrome, then the movement might make sense,[14] but this ignores the fact that the autism rights movement includes people who are diagnosed with "classic autism" rather than Asperger's Disorder.

Sue Rubin, the subject of the Oscar-nominated documentary Autism Is A World, is an example of an autistic adult who is aligned with the cure group. In her opinion, people with Asperger syndrome can communicate well and "pass for normal", while "low-functioning" people have a severe disability; "low functioning people are just trying to get through the day without hurting, tapping, flailing, biting, screaming, etc. The thought of a gold pot of a potion with a cure really would be wonderful."[15]

However, many people with Asperger's Disorder are severely disabled by their condition and not capable of "passing" due to their obvious autistic traits. Furthermore, the autism rights movement includes people who are described as "low-functioning". The movement generally rejects the "functioning labels" due to their highly inconsistent definitions and inability to usefully communicate the degree of a person's disability.[16][17][18][19][20][21] In a clinical sense, "high-functioning" technically refers to any autistic person with an IQ over 70; falling into this category does not mean that a person is able to "function" in their everyday life. This is why the latest edition of the DSM classifies severity by "support needs" rather than functioning labels.[22]

Jonathan Mitchell, an autistic author and blogger who advocates for a cure for Autism, has described autism as having "prevented me from making a living or ever having a girlfriend. It's given me bad fine motor coordination problems where I can hardly write. I have an impaired ability to relate to people. I can't concentrate or get things done."[23] He describes neurodiversity as a "tempting escape valve".[24]

To make the water even more muddy, the DSM in version five removes Asperger's Syndrome and instead clumps it with Autism Spectrum Disorder.


  1. Autism Network International
  2. Autism Self Advocacy Network
  3. Aspies for Freedom
  4. Autism Research Institute
  5. Autism Speaks
  6. Bipolar - A Neurodiversity Approach
  7. Kathyrn Boundy, "'Are You Sure, Sweetheart, That You Want to Be Well?': An Exploration Of The Neurodiversity Movement, Radical Psychology, Volume 7, 2008.
  8. I mean, why put up with your kid's peculiar behaviour compared to every other upper-middle classman's when you can just bleach him to fucking death?
  9. The Autistic Genocide Clock, Ventura33, now archived (via Wayback Machine).
  10. Autism Speaks: World Autism Awareness Day
  11. See Autism Acceptance Day blog and Autism Acceptance Month website.
  12. 12.0 12.1 "Allism: an introduction to a little-known condition", Andrew Main, 2003
  13. Allism Speaks (Tumblr)
  14. 14.0 14.1 Harmon, Amy (2004-12-20). "How About Not 'Curing' Us, Some Autistics Are Pleading". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 16 November 2007. Retrieved 2007-11-07. 
  15. Rubin, Sue. Acceptance versus Cure. CNN Programs - Presents. Retrieved on 2008-02-17.
  16. "What Is Wrong With Functioning Labels?". Retrieved 13 March 2016. 
  17. "You don't speak for Low-functioning autistics". Retrieved 03 April 2016. 
  18. Barnum, Courtney. "Why I Hate Functioning Labels". Retrieved 13 March 2016. 
  19. "Functioning Labels (Again!)". Retrieved 03 April 2016. 
  20. "Low-Functioning/Severe Autism". Retrieved 03 April 2016. 
  21. "No You Don't". Retrieved 03 April 2016. 
  22. "Changes to autism and Asper syndrome diagnostic criteria". 
  23. Hamilton, Jon. "Shortage of Brain Tissue Hinders Autism Research". Retrieved 10 May 2015. 
  24. Solomon, Andrew. "The Autism Rights Movement". Retrieved 10 May 2015.