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Autism: disability or difference? (part 2)

Published: July 25, 2018
Last updated on February 25, 2021
For the first part of this post, read: Autism: disability or difference? (part 1)


When Noam Chomsky in 1996 said that language is the “mirror of the mind” he was referring to the idea that the language we use gives insight into human thought. Society has certainly agreed upon social ‘norms’. Those who exist outside of these norms are often stigmatized and thus the fears of society are expressed and exposed.

With this consideration, is it acceptable or correct that the fate of people with differences in their brains is dependent on their ability to appear neurotypical? It has been suggested that autism can be reframed as a behavioural syndrome rather than a mental disorder given its heterogeneity both genetically and etiologically.


First let us talk about what normal is, and then discuss whether ‘different’ warrants the label ‘abnormal’ or ‘defective’ applied to it.

‘Normalcy’ is a relative term and is usually applied to the behaviour of the majority. In 1992, the Autism Network International introduced the term neurologically typical or neurotypical (NT) to describe non-autistic people. Since then it is a label that is applied to the ‘non-’ version of whatever disorder is being discussed.

For example, psychopathy versus neurotypical (non-psychopath). The term ‘normal’ immediately creates an ‘us-vs-them’ mentality and is applied to race, gender, sexuality or behaviour.

This preference of humans to apply categories to people immediately places autistics in an ‘other’ category. The danger of this is that research points to us having an innate preference for what we consider the same as ourselves, and this preference includes an increase in empathy. This is due to a region of the brain which categorises people as being like us, even if all we know about them is that they have one thing in common.

Once we know someone has one thing in common with us, we tend to think that they have many commonalities.


Research reveals that the portion of the brain behind our eyes called the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) is activated when people consider themselves or people like them. This MPFC then makes judgments about different people. It is interesting to note that psychopaths have faulty MPFCs and thus are not influenced by the phenomenon of similarity. When we think of someone as different than ourselves this region does not activate.

The relevance of this is that we automatically give preferential treatment to members of our own group. We empathise with them more, we give them more leeway, when they make an error we forgive them more easily, and we are more willing to share with them.


If we consider neurotypicality to be normative–which we do given it is most common—then it may seem reasonable at first to consider autism as abnormal. But if we look more closely at the statistics, we find that what is normative isn’t actually as common as you think.

  • 1–2.5% of the population is autistic.
  • 1% schizophrenic.
  • 1% primary psychopathy.
  • 2% secondary psychopathy.
  • 3% ASPD.
  • 10–18% personality disorders.
  • 30% demonstrating NPD qualities.
  • 17% depression (suicide accounts for 24% of all deaths among 15–24-year-olds and 16% among 25–44-year-olds).
  • 5% of people suffer from anxiety at any given time.
  • …and on and on.

So it would seem that various atypical conditions are actually very commonplace. You might say the “abnormal” is often quite normative after all.

Us vs them

Generally, this us-vs-them mentality excludes whole groups of people; subconsciously a neurotypical may not be inclined to give a dyslexic person a job, as dyslexia is not only seen as ‘other’, but as a failure to adhere to norms in terms of spelling and writing. But as soon as certain attributes are being acknowledged, it may open the doors for a whole group of people.

In case of dyslexics, they are great spatial thinkers, and so many architecture firms know this and are thus more inclined to hire dyslexic people predominantly or exclusively. As a similar shift may be occurring for autistic people, so too the doors may open for them. This is why proper education on not only the deficits but also the benefits of autism is going to be crucial.

Seeing the dangers of how labeling limits us and causes us to be influenced—for example by treating the group we feel we belong to with greater empathy and confirming unearned benefits, while disregarding other groups—we need to see what is similar to us in others. Irrespective of whether we view autism as a difference or a disorder, we need to focus more on what connects us rather than what divides us.


This article
was written by:

Dr. Natalie Engelbrecht ND RP is a dually licensed naturopathic doctor and registered psychotherapist, and a Canadian leader in trauma, PTSD, and integrative medicine strictly informed by scientific research.

She was diagnosed at 46, and her autism plays a significant role in who she is as a doctor, and how she interacts with and cares for her patients and clients.

Want to know more about her? Read her About me page.


Although our content is generally well-researched
and substantiated, or based on personal experience,
note that it does not constitute medical advice.


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