If Autism Isn’t a Mental Illness, What Is?

My name is Elliot. I’m an autistic psychologist with bipolar 1 disorder (and ADHD). I’ve been mentioned in passing [1] [2] in news articles about autistic autism researchers, but I prefer to keep on the science side of things. I usually only use Twitter for personal entertainment, sometimes biting my tongue as I weigh the pros and cons of engaging in autism discourse. I don’t entangle myself too deeply in advocacy work. For the most part, I keep my opinions on controversial things low-key no matter which side I am on. This post is a divergence from that tendency.

I have not uncommonly heard people object to classifying autism as a mental illness. It’s almost taken for granted that autism doesn’t fall under that umbrella. You may be surprised to know how people try to justify it if you actually ask them “Why isn’t it a mental illness?” Indeed, when pressed the most common responses are along the lines of:

  • “Autism is a neurodevelopmental disability” / “You’re born with autism”
  • “Autism isn’t an illness” / “Autism doesn’t need to be treated”
  • “Autistic people aren’t like *those* people”

The common element in all of these responses is a lack of understanding of what mental illness is and what mentally ill people experience. The question I want to ask back is this: If autism isn’t a mental illness, what is?

I’m not unsympathetic to the cause of not labeling people as having an “illness” because they’re neurodivergent, but why is it okay to do it to schizophrenic folks and not to autistic folks? There are plenty of mad people who don’t exactly view their diagnosis as an illness, although opinions in the psychiatric community are varied on this topic. Some consider diagnostic labels to be a prison, and others a gift. We sure live with plenty of labels.

Pharmaceutical drug labels.

Mental illness takes many forms. Some of them are quite properly classified as “neurodevelopmental disabilities” (including schizo spec, bipolar disorder, and ADHD — among possibly many others). The disorders I just mentioned are predominantly caused by genetics, and are therefore present at birth. The expression does change over time — but don’t autistic people have qualities that change as they grow and learn?

People refuse to acknowledge the close similarities between autism and schizophrenia (and other severe mental illness).

I’m going to flat-out recognize this: I think a lot of our community is biased. There are a lot of autistic people that are sanist, and they’ve been permitted to perpetuate misunderstanding.

My own therapist once tried to convince me after I admitted to experiencing delusions earlier in the week that I was merely referencing thoughts that were “overly rigid” as a result of my autism. My psychotic symptoms were being falsely attributed to my autism, and a lack of care was being given where care was needed.

And in the real world autistic people are at high risk of being mistaken for schizophrenic and taken to an ER for psych evaluation when they’re in distress. People can be treated horribly. But instead of stepping back and saying “Why do we treat mentally ill people horribly?” we’ve decided that allyship is not for us and we double down on “Autism isn’t a mental illness.” We cast non-autistic (and some autistic!) neurodivergent people as the Other.

To be quite honest, I think some autistic people are scared of crazy.

Perhaps they’re scared of people who may be erratic, hard to predict, or have dramatic emotional reactions.

A person wearing black Converse and a blue hoodie.

Are there reasons to set autism apart from conditions we consider “mental illness”? I just don’t see the justification for viewing autism as so singularly unique from other conditions. It’s possible that, in the future, we could redefine and do away with the label of “mental illness” altogether. I’ll be interested to see how language evolves for neurodivergent folks. I hope even moreso that people in the autistic community approach the psychiatric community with an open mind, and not with fear or prejudice. I see hope for a future of cross-disability solidarity.