Is it okay to use the “Autism card”?

September 12, 2017 Published by

As it is World Autism Week, we want to talk about the awareness of invisible needs and disabilities.

Some of us might be familiar with this term, but not sure what it means. Well to put it simply, an invisible disability is a physical, mental or neurological condition that is not visible from the outside, yet can limit or challenge a person’s movements, senses, or activities. 

Unfortunately, the very fact that these symptoms are invisible can lead to misunderstandings, false perceptions, and judgments.

For example, if you see a child in a wheelchair, it is easy to understand why they would need a ramp to get up a step. However, it can be harder for those who are not familiar with less visible disabilities to recognise that assistance and support are just as essential to the child’s wellbeing.

So what are the benefits of identifying invisible disabilities such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?

Some practical examples of how awareness of autism benefits children and parents are:

  • Disabled bays – Parents may benefit from parking in a disabled bay if their child has a tendency to run away from them and has a lack of traffic awareness. 
  • Access to quiet areas – Children with ASD may struggle with noises and crowds, so access to quiet areas and priority boarding at the airport, for example, could prevent a meltdown. 
  • Access to a seat on public transport – You might have seen people on TfL wearing a ‘please offer me a seat’ badge which can alert people to the need for a seat even if you have a disability that might not be visible.

But how can you get this support? Explaining to relevant staff that your child has ASD and will need additional support might feel difficult, and like you’re playing the ‘autism card’, but it can make life a whole lot easier.

Disabled Parking Space

The difficulty of having an ‘invisible’ disability

While on the whole, awareness of Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) are improving, many people might not understand why some children get special assistance when they are high functioning, or look totally ‘normal’. 

They might suggest that there are plenty of other children who don’t like queuing and who cause a fuss but their parents would just choose not to put them in the situation.

Even if our main concern is for our child and we shouldn’t worry about what other people think, it is hard not to feel awkward or judged by this. But you shouldn’t let it result in you avoiding accessing the support that would benefit your child.

What about labelling?

Labelling is a whole debate of its own – do labels constrain, support, harm or even empower children with SEND

As children get older, they may not want to be labelled. Although they can’t control their anxieties and reactions, they might be sensitive to having their disability pointed out to others. 

On the other hand, they may feel that it’s an important part of their identity and rather than hiding it, may enjoy wearing it as a symbol of pride. 

While all parents want their children to have positive experiences, they don’t necessarily want to shout about their child’s ASD and draw attention to it. After all, their child has their own identity separate from their ASD – “Autistic may describe them, but autism does not define them.” 

However, those who don’t live with SEND may struggle to understand the challenges it can bring – while we want to encourage empathy and acceptance, it’s also important to realise that this is a difficult thing to truly appreciate without experience.

boy playing in the playground

What are some of the benefits of labelling ASD?

Labelling as signposting – One mum we spoke to described using the ‘Autism card’ as putting up a signpost for your child to get the necessary help and support.

Opening the door to other methods of support – While there are certain situations that children with ASD find stressful (parents will know the triggers and ways to manage their own individual situations), letting people know that your child has ASD can open a door to other methods of support that you didn’t even know existed. For example, access to quiet areas and priority boarding in some airports, passes to skip queues in theme parks and special shopping sessions supermarkets. 

Knowledge enhances understanding – As we have mentioned, not everyone lives with SEND and so may struggle to understand the challenges. Being aware of their peers with ASD can help them to learn about it which leads the way to better understanding, whether this is in school, activities or the workplace. 


While no child wants to be defined by their ‘label’, as we have seen, you should absolutely not be afraid to mention your child’s ASD in order to get the support they need.

It is important to remember that being treated fairly and inclusively is not the same thing as special treatment. Children with ASD should have the same opportunities as everybody else whether that includes flying abroad for a holiday, attending school or going to the cinema with their family.

Disabled Parking by Stevepj2008 licensed under CC BY 2.0 

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This post was written by Claire Gillies

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