upper waypoint

How Can the Social Model of Disability Change How Society Views Autism?

Save ArticleSave Article
Failed to save article

Please try again

The brain is the most complex organ in the human body. So, it’s no surprise that everyone’s brain develops in a unique way. Unfortunately, neurodivergent people, including those with autism spectrum disorder, have historically been viewed through the lens of the medical model. In this view, autism is something that needs to be fixed or cured. The social model of disability turns this around. It focuses more on how society can adapt to fit the needs of the person. In this episode, Myles talks to people with autism and explores what acceptance of neurodiversity could look like. Watch and then let us know: How can the social model of disability change how society views autism?

TEACHERS: Get your students in the discussion on KQED Learn, a safe place for middle and high school students to investigate controversial topics and share their voices. Click to see this video and lesson plan on KQED Learn.

What is autism?

If you look up the definition of autism, you’ll get something like this: autism is a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain that can affect how people behave, communicate, interact, and learn. The OFFICIAL diagnosis goes by ASD – Autism Spectrum Disorder. But, there’s no one look or symptom you can point to and decree – this person has autism! It exists on a spectrum, meaning it shows up differently depending on the person.

What is neurodiversity?


The brain is the most complex organ in the human body. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that everyone’s brain develops in a unique way. That’s how we get the concept of neurodiversity, which is the idea that there is no one, universally accepted definition of what a “normal” brain is. It basically focuses on how the kinds of behaviors we consider “normal” vary depending on the culture we live in. When someone behaves as expected by their society, they can be considered neurotypical. Most of society is built around how neurotypicals go about their day. But there are tons of people who don’t fit in with how society expects them to be. This includes many people with brain-base disabilities like autism, ADHD, Tourette’s – the list goes on. Many of them consider themselves neurodivergent.

What is the difference between the medical model of disability and the social model?

Most disabilities have historically been viewed through the lens of the medical model. Using this view, a disability is something that needs to be fixed or cured. For instance, if someone needs to get into a building, but that person is in a wheelchair, they need to adapt in order to get up the stairs to get through the door. The social model, on the other hand, focuses more on how the environment can be adapted to better fit the person. Using this model, you would build a ramp, so the person in a wheelchair could get into the building.


  • Autism Spectrum Disorder

This infographic from Nature defines the elements of ASD. 

  • The Myth of the Normal Brain: Embracing Neurodiversity

This journal article from the American Medical Association challenges the myth that anyone’s brain can be “normal.” 

  • Why the Focus of Autism Research Is Shifting Away from Searching for a ‘Cure’

This story from NBC News discusses how the hope for an autism “cure” often resulted in frustration and disappointment, but that now the medical profession is focusing on ways to make the lives of autistic people happier and healthier. 

  • Clearing Up Some Misconceptions about Neurodiversity

This article from Scientific American addresses misconceptions about autism spectrum disorder and other forms of neurodiversity.

  • History of Autism. The Beginnings. Collusions or Serendipity

This article from the Journal of Education Sciences is about the history of autism and how views of autism have evolved over time. 

  • It’s Time We Dispelled These Myths About Autism

This piece from the BBC seeks to correct myths about autism, including misinformation and disinformation about what causes autism spectrum disorder. 

  • The Vaccine-Autism Myth Started 20 Years Ago.

This story from Time is the backstory of the completely false belief that autism is somehow related to a common childhood vaccine that prevents illness and death worldwide. 


lower waypoint
next waypoint