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HandWiki. Medical Model of Autism. Encyclopedia. Available online: (accessed on 16 April 2024).
HandWiki. Medical Model of Autism. Encyclopedia. Available at: Accessed April 16, 2024.
HandWiki. "Medical Model of Autism" Encyclopedia, (accessed April 16, 2024).
HandWiki. (2022, November 16). Medical Model of Autism. In Encyclopedia.
HandWiki. "Medical Model of Autism." Encyclopedia. Web. 16 November, 2022.
Medical Model of Autism

The medical model of autism encourages continual research into the causes of autism, with the primary goal of finding a way to prevent or cure autism. This is a subset of the medical model of disability in general. The model advocates a variety of goals including increased awareness of autism prevalence, earlier and more accessible diagnosis, elimination of autistic behaviors through therapies such as applied behavior analysis, identification of environmental factors that may cause autism in infancy, and identification of a genetic marker to allow testing for autism in utero. Advocates for the medical model believe that autism is a disorder caused by genetic defects or environmental harm, that the value of talents attributed to autism does not outweigh the deficits, and that most autistic people would be better off if they were not autistic. For instance, then-president Liz Feld of Autism Speaks stated that one-third of people with autism also have a seizure disorder, half suffer serious digestive complications, 49 percent wander, and more than 30 percent are nonverbal. Many organizations subscribe to the medical model, most of which have non-profit status. The autism rights and neurodiversity movements are critics of the medical view.

medical model environmental factors neurodiversity

1. Medical Definition

Autism is defined in the DSM-IV-TR as exhibiting at least six symptoms total, including at least two symptoms of qualitative impairment in social interaction, at least one symptom of qualitative impairment in communication, and at least one symptom of restricted and repetitive behavior. Sample symptoms include lack of social or emotional reciprocity, stereotyped and repetitive use of language or idiosyncratic language, and persistent preoccupation with parts of objects. Onset must be prior to age three years, with delays or abnormal functioning in either social interaction, language as used in social communication, or symbolic or imaginative play. The disturbance must not be better accounted for by Rett syndrome or childhood disintegrative disorder.[1]

2. Advocacy

The medical model has been the most popular stance on autism ever since the condition was identified by Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger in 1943. Researchers at the time believed that autism was similar to schizophrenia but with the patients being more self-involved.

In 1965, the National Society for Autistic Children, later renamed the Autism Society of America, was founded by Bernard Rimland and Ruth C. Sullivan, along with a small group of other parents.[2] The Autism Society does not advocate explicitly to cure autism.

In 1995, the Autism Research Institute (ARI) began hosting its annual Defeat Autism Now! (DAN!) conference to discuss the latest developments in research. Beginning with the 2011 conference, ARI renamed it the ARI conference and suspended the list of DAN! doctors.[3]

In 2005, Autism Speaks was founded by Bob Wright and Suzanne Wright, a year after their grandson Christian was diagnosed as autistic.[4] Autism Speaks has since become the most recognized autism-related organization worldwide. Other celebrity endorsements of the medical model have included Ed Asner, Toni Braxton, Jim Carrey, Byron Dafoe, Sarah Gardner, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Olaf Kölzig, Scott Mellanby, Zack Peter, AJ Rafael, and Mike Rio.

In 2008, the first World Autism Awareness Day was celebrated after a United Nations General Assembly resolution recognizing the day passed in December 2007.[5][6][7][8]

2.1. Current Groups Promoting the Medical Model

  • Athletes Against Autism is an association of athletes founded by three NHL players, which leverages the celebrity status of athletes to promote awareness and fundraising.
  • Autism Research Institute (ARI) is an information resource advocating various methods of autism treatment, some of which have been medically discredited. ARI hosted an annual conference called Defeat Autism Now! between 1995 and 2011.
  • Autism Speaks is an organization dedicated to awareness, research, and public policy advocacy. Autism Speaks has merged with the National Alliance for Autism Research and with Cure Autism Now.
  • Center for Autism and Related Disorders (CARD) is a therapy service that primarily provides families with applied behavior analysis.

3. Events and Activities

  • In 2002, Autism Awareness Campaign UK initiated Autism Sunday, an international day of prayer observed on the second Sunday of February.
  • April is designated as Autism Awareness Month (called Autism Acceptance Month in the autism rights movement) to promote media coverage and fundraising for autism-related organizations. In 2008, a United Nations General Assembly resolution recognized April 2 as World Autism Awareness Day.[5][6][7][8]
  • In 2010, Autism Speaks launched Light It Up Blue, an awareness and fundraising campaign urging homeowners and businesses to replace their light bulbs with specialty blue light bulbs on April 2. Autism Speaks also benefits from blue autism- and puzzle-coded merchandise year-round.

4. Issues

4.1. Cure and Prevention

The pro-cure perspective is a view of autism as a disorder characterized by various impairments, mostly in communication and social interaction. Although positive traits such as savant syndrome may be recognized, they are not seen as outweighing the negatives. Pro-cure organizations generally favor the medical model of disability with regards to autism. They believe that the atypical behaviors of autistic individuals are a detriment to those individuals' success, both socially and professional, and should therefore be reduced or eliminated through therapy. Autistic people's life experiences are viewed as sub-standard and a burden to their caretakers.

Autism Speaks co-founder Suzanne Wright published a "Call for Action" at the time of the organization's first national policy summit in Washington, D.C., explaining the urgency of what she called the autism crisis.[9] In this essay, she equates children being autistic to being "missing" and "gravely ill", and details the exhaustive experiences of their parents:

4.2. Awareness

The puzzle piece ribbon is the most recognized symbol for autism awareness.

Awareness campaigns by various organizations draw attention to the prevalence of autism, estimated by the year 2012 as 1 in 68 individuals (1 in 42 males, 1 in 189 females) by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).[10] This figure has risen from the estimated 1 in 150 in the year 2000. The prevalence statistic is used to describe the scope and size of the problem, and the increase over time is used to frame the issue as urgent. Some organizations and individuals even call it the autism epidemic.[11] Awareness campaigns educate people not only about the prevalence of autism but also how it is characterized. Almost every autism-related organization has a flyer or a section of their website describing what autism is, in a way that supports the organization's point of view. Descriptions used by the medical model are generally based on the facts and language used in medical journals.

Autism is classified as a disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems. Attempts have been made to place a figure on the financial cost of autism, addressed to both scholarly[12] and popular audiences.[13]

5. Criticism

Activists like Jim Sinclair and Donna Williams and organizations such as Aspies For Freedom and the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, contend that autism is not a disorder, but a normal variant within the neurological diversity of the human genome. Struggles faced by autistic people are attributed to discrimination rather than deficiencies. Proponents of the anti-cure perspective believe that quirks and uniqueness of autistic individuals should be accepted and that efforts to eliminate autism should not be compared, for example, to curing cancer but instead to the antiquated notion of curing left-handedness.[14][15] Therapies that attempt to restrict autistic behaviors, particularly applied behavior analysis (ABA), have been challenged on ethical grounds. Autism rights activists argue that ABA therapy and restriction of stimming "and other autistic coping mechanisms" are mentally harmful, that aversion therapy and the use of restraints are physically harmful, and that alternative treatments like chelation are dangerous.[16] Michelle Dawson, a Canadian autism self-advocate, testified in court against government funding of ABA therapy.[15] An autistic person named Jane Meyerding criticized therapy which attempts to remove autistic behaviors because she says that the behaviors that the therapy tries to remove are attempts to communicate.[14]


  1. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-IV. 4 ed. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association; 2000. ISBN:978-0-89042-025-6. OCLC 768475353. Diagnostic criteria for 299.00 Autistic Disorder.
  2. "Autism Society history". Autism Society. 2011. Archived from the original on 2014-08-09. 
  3. Leitch, Kevin (2011-01-02). "2011 – The Last Year For ARI’s DAN! Doctors". Left Brain Right Brain. 
  4. "Autism debate strains a family and its charity". New York Times. 2007-06-18. Archived from the original on April 16, 2009. Retrieved 2007-10-09. 
  5. "Third Committee calls on Assembly to designate 2 April World Autism Day" (Press release). UN General Assembly. 1 November 2007. Retrieved 29 October 2009.
  6. "General Assembly Adopts Landmark Text Calling for Moratorium on Death Penalty, Adopts 54 Resolutions, 12 Decisions Recommended by Third Committee" (Press release). UN General Assembly. 18 December 2007. Retrieved 29 October 2009.
  7. United Nations General Assembly Session 62 Resolution 139. A/RES/62/139 page 2. 18 December 2007. Retrieved 29 October 2009.
  8. United Nations General Assembly Session 62 Verbatim Report 76. A/62/PV.76 18 December 2007. Retrieved 29 October 2009.
  9. Wright, Suzanne (2013-11-11). "Autism Speaks to Washington - A Call for Action". Autism Speaks. 
  10. "Autism Spectrum Disorder Data & Statistics". Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2014-03-24. Archived from the original on 2014-04-18. 
  11. "Autism Epidemic". The Autism Epidemic. 
  12. John L R Rubenstein; Moldin, Steven O. (2006). Understanding autism: from basic neuroscience to treatment. Boca Raton: Taylor & Frances. ISBN 0-8493-2732-6. 
  13. "Autism Clock". Archived from the original on 2007-07-21. Retrieved 2008-01-04. 
  14. Harmon, Amy (2004-12-20). "How About Not 'Curing' Us, Some Autistics Are Pleading". The New York Times. Archived from the original on December 2, 2011. Retrieved 2007-11-07. 
  15. "In Support of Michelle Dawson and Her Work". Archived from the original on 2012-02-15. Retrieved 2012-03-21. 
  16. Mission Statement. Aspies for Freedom. Retrieved on 2008-11-24.
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