How social deficit models exacerbate the medical model: autism as case in point

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This analysis argues that social deficit theories exacerbate the worst excesses of the medical model, a framework that attributes autism (in this example) as the cause of a person’s functional impairment or disability, and empowers professionals and caregivers to treat autistic people’s problems. Social deficit theories of autism generally conceptualise a deficit in understanding of others or motivation to relate to others as its primary cause.

Harms of the medical model heightened by these theories include dehumanisation that denies basic respect and dignity, pathologisation of neutral and positive differences, reductionism to a social disorder despite complex traits and sensorimotor underpinnings, and essentialism despite autism’s fluid boundaries.

Proposed solutions include a more holistic and socially embedded classification system that recognises strengths and functional differences, more inclusion of autistic people in research and society, and practical strategies to help autistic and non-autistic people understand one another.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3-28
JournalAutism Policy & Practice
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 6 Sept 2019


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