Autism: The social versus medical model

From the TUC handbook, Autism in the Workplace

There are different ways of understanding disability. The two main ones are:

  • the social model
  • the medical model

The trade union movement uses the social model of disability. This section explains the social model and how it applies to autism. The rest of this handbook uses the social model to understand autism in the workplace and trade union strategies for taking up this issue.

Social model of disability

The social model looks at the barriers that our society puts in the way of disabled (in this case, autistic) people’s participation, including both attitudes and practical barriers. It aims to remove unnecessary barriers which prevent disabled people accessing work and services and living independently.

The social model identifies the problems faced by disabled people as a consequence of external factors. For example, bright lighting in a workplace might cause distress to an autistic person who has sensory sensitivity to light.

The social model distinguishes between impairment and disability.

Impairment is described as a characteristic or long term trait which may or may not result from an injury or disease or condition. For example, a person on the autistic spectrum may have executive function impairment.

Disability is the difficulty experienced by people with an impairment by society not taking sufficient measures to take account of their needs. For example, an individual is not prevented from carrying out a sudden change in working practices by being autistic, but by the employer not giving enough notice of and preparation for the change.

The social model identifies attitudes which may impede disabled people’s participation and equality. There is prejudice and ignorance surrounding autism. There are also workplace practices, procedures, cultures, unwritten rules and communication forms which do not take account of people on the autistic spectrum.

Medical model of disability

The medical model presents the impairment as the cause of disabled people’s disadvantage and exclusion. If an employer decides that a person cannot work for his/her company because s/he is autistic, rather than considering how to make the workplace suitable for an autistic person to work in, that employer is probably being influenced by the medical model of disability.

Unfortunately, the medical model dominates much political and legal decisionmaking.

The trade union response

The trade union movement supports the social model of disability. In individual representation, collective bargaining, drawing up demands and campaigning for them, the most effective approach for trade unions to follow is to identify the factors in the workplace environment and working conditions that disable the autistic worker. Then, the union can identify and fight for the changes that would remove these factors.

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