Is autism a disability? The question is a bit controversial. Some adults with autism prefer to think of themselves as different rather than disabled. They work, marry, and live an independent life with some modifications without the disability label.
But some people with autism can't live independently. They need significant accommodations, and some never have the opportunity to live independently. Adults like this might qualify for disability benefits.
Raising a child with autism can put a strain on family finances. In some cases, a child's disability could keep a parent from full-time work. Families like this might also qualify for disability benefits.
What Benefits Are Available?
The Social Security Administration (SSA) has two types of programs. They are:
- Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) for people who once worked but are no longer able to do so. Children typically don't qualify for this program since they have no work history, but adults with autism might.
- Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for low-income households in which a person can't work due to a disability. Both adults and children with autism might qualify for this program.
These programs are very different, but eligibility requirements and application processes are much the same.
Are Children Eligible for Disability Benefits?
The SSA takes the guesswork out of the autism and disability question. Children who meet guidelines put forth by the SSA are eligible for benefits.
Children between 3 and 18 years old must have:
- Medical documentation. They need paperwork that proves they have communication deficits, social interaction limitations, and restricted behavior patterns.
- Mental functioning limits. They must struggle with understanding information, interactions with others, concentration, or adapting to situations. Severe limits in one area or marked difficulties with two areas are enough to qualify.
SSA administrators look over a lot of data to make decisions. They might require an intelligence test, or they could review an older child's school records. The team might also talk with your child's doctor or therapists.
Income plays a role in qualifications. Since children don't work, experts assess the wealth of parents. Income is a top reason for denied benefits, experts say. The more people who live in your household, the higher your wealth limit.
Are Adults Eligible for Disability Benefits?
It's harder for adults to get benefits, experts say. It's not impossible, but be prepared to demonstrate that the condition is so severe that it limits the person from getting meaningful work that allows for financial independence.
According to the SSA, adults must have:
- Medical documentation. Just like children, adults must have proof of communication deficits, social interaction limitations, and restricted behavior patterns.
- Extreme limits in one, or marked limits in two, mental functioning areas. These areas include understanding or applying information, social interactions, concentration, and adaptation.
If your loved one doesn't qualify based on these rules, options are available. Experts say the SSA can evaluate the person’s ability to perform in a work setting. Skills to evaluate might include the ability to:
- Sit still.
- Work with others.
- Complete work at a competitive pace.
To qualify, the person must be unable to tackle these tasks in a work setting.
How to Apply for Benefits
The Social Security Administration is a federal entity, but benefits flow from the states to people in need. In some cases, you'll start the conversation online. It pays to know where your state's benefits office is located, so you can get added help as needed.
To apply for benefits for kids:
- Make an appointment. Meet with a professional in the SSA in your state.
- Gather paperwork. You'll need medical records, doctors’ notes, test results, notes from teachers, income data, and anything else that can help you prove your child's disability.
- Complete an application. You'll get the forms you need during your meeting, and you might fill them out before your appointment ends.
To apply for benefits for adults:
- Gather paperwork. Pull together medical records, employment records, notes from bosses, test results, and anything else that helps to prove a disability.
- Hop online. Apply for disability benefits through the SSA website. Save your work and return to an open application if you can't complete the form in one day.
Prepare to wait several weeks before you hear back, experts say. The team must assess all the data you sent, and that takes time.
Is Autism a Disability?
The "disabled" label can chafe, and you may balk at applying it to yourself or your child. Benefits aren't made to limit you or your ability to live and succeed.
Think of benefits as tools you can use to live your best life without worrying about money or benefits. If you're eligible for them, use them without shame or worry.
An accurate diagnosis of autism can open up other doors for you or your child. This diagnosis can mean you are able to get vital services and treatments, such as applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy, speech therapy, and occupational therapy. These therapies can greatly improve the ability to cope with the outside world, helping an autistic individual to thrive. Without a diagnosis, you will likely struggle to get vital help.
- Is Autism a Disability or a Difference? Judy Endow.
- Listing of Impairments: Childhood Listings (Part B). Social Security Administration.
- How a Child Can Qualify for Social Security Benefits With Autism. (January 2019). Autism Care Today.
- Autism and Social Security Disability. Disability Benefits Center.
- Listing of Impairments: Adult Listings (Part A). Social Security Administration.
- State Social Security Disability Resources. Disability Benefits Center.
- Successfully Receive Social Security Disability Benefits With Autism. Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation.
- Disability Benefits. Social Security Administration.
- What Is It Like to Get an Autism Diagnosis Later in Life? (November 2019). Psychology Today.
- Washington Post's Depictions of Autism Shift From 'Cause and Cure' to Acceptance, Study Finds. (May 2020). UC Santa Cruz.