Atticus offers free, high-quality disability advice for Americans who can't work. Our team of Stanford and Harvard trained lawyers has a combined 15+ years of legal experience, and have helped over 10,000 Americans apply for disability benefits.
Autism can qualify you for disability benefits, assuming your condition prevents you from holding a job or taking care of yourself. Categorized by the Social Security Administration (SSA) as a mental disorder, autism is considered a qualifying condition if it meets certain medical requirements from the SSA.
That being said, it's notoriously difficult to qualify for Social Security disability with mental illness — individuals with autism spectrum disorder account for just 0.40% of those who receive disability benefits. As such, it's important to understand how the SSA defines autism spectrum disorder and what the SSA criteria are to qualify with autism. Based on that information, we'll discuss what next steps you should take.
Is Autism a disability?
Yes, autism is considered a disability under SSA rules, though the SSA formally refers to it as autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Your condition can qualify for Social Security disability benefits if you are unable to work because of it and if it meets other SSA requirements for eligibility.
How the SSA defines Autism
The SSA considers autism as a mental disorder. According to its definition, people with autism spectrum disorder experience difficulty in verbal and non-verbal communication as well as in social interaction. They also may display patterns of behavior, interests, or activities that are significantly restricted and repetitive. Further, the SSA states that those with autism may struggle in certain areas, such as understanding or remembering information or concentrating.
The SSA also notes that individuals with autism may have unusual responses to sensory stimuli like light or smells, and they may deal with behavioral difficulties ranging from hyperactivity and a short attention span to impulsivity and aggressiveness.
While autism may be considered a learning disability or intellectual disability according to other legal standards, the SSA doesn’t use those terms and will follow the criteria below when evaluating SSDI or SSI applications.
Qualifying conditions on the autism spectrum
ASD also includes conditions that were historically treated as separate disorders. For example, someone with asperger syndrome, autistic disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder, or pervasive developmental disorder would all fall on the autism spectrum.
Can you get disability for Autism?
If you're unable to work because of your autism, then it can qualify you for Social Security disability benefits. Children with autism can also qualify for SSI.
Still, there are strict criteria you'll need to satisfy. For example, adult workers will need to provide medical documentation demonstrating you've sought treatment for your autism and it continues to affect your ability to work. It's highly likely that the process of applying lasts months or years.
To receive Social Security benefits, it's necessary to provide medical documentation that shows although you've gotten treatment, you're unable to work because of your condition. Possible examples of documentation include doctor’s notes, prescriptions, treatment plans, results from lab tests, and other official diagnosis from your primary care provider (PCP), therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist.
There are two main criteria to qualify for SSDI or SSI with autism, according to the SSA Blue Book.
1. You must have medical documentation of both:
Measurable deficiencies in both verbal and non-verbal communication as well as in social interactions.
Patterns of behavior, interests, or activities that are very limited or repetitive.
2. You must have medical documents demonstrating that you experience extreme limitation in at least one — or marked limitation in at least two — of the following areas:
Your ability to understand, remember, or apply information
Your ability to interact with others, like bosses, customers, or coworkers
Your ability to concentrate, persist in a task, or keep up a sustained rate of work
Your ability to self-manage or adapt to different situations
If you have an extreme limitation, you may be unable to function independently in that area for a sustained amount of time. If you have a marked limitation, you can handle the activity on your own but your ability to do it is seriously limited and you may have difficulty doing it for a sustained period.
You won’t need documentation for every example of autism limiting your ability to function in a work environment. However, you will need clear documentation or other evidence that your condition affects the abilities listed above.
Also note that under SSA rules, autism spectrum disorder can, but doesn’t need to, include language or intellectual impairment to qualify for disability benefits.
Questions to ask yourself before applying
Before moving forward with an application for autism disability benefits, it is helpful to ask yourself some questions. If your answer to most of the following is 'yes,' then there's a greater chance your autism will allow you to qualify for benefits:
Do I struggle to communicate or build relationships? Have I lost jobs because of it?
Do I find it very difficult to control compulsive behavior or language?
Do I have a hard time following instructions or concentrating?
Am I extremely sensitive to light, sound, touch, smells, or other sensory input?
Do I have any other conditions, such as anxiety or a sleep disorder?
My Autism meets the criteria. Now what?
If your autism meets the SSA criteria outlined above and you have detailed documentation, the next step is applying for disability benefits. The application process is lengthy so it's smart to get the ball rolling as soon as you can.
While you can apply even if you're not completely sure that your condition will meet SSA criteria, know that applying is an involved process. As such, it's helpful to have a certain level of certainty before investing too much time and energy. Here's some advice that might help you make up your mind on whether or not to apply:
Apply now if:
You've been diagnosed with autism and have thorough medical documentation of your condition.
Your symptoms prevent you from being able to work, even with treatment.
Your autism meets the criteria outlined in the previous section.
Another way to save some time in the application process is by taking our disability benefits quiz. If it looks likely that you'll qualify for disability, a member of the Atticus team will get in touch to learn more about your condition and your situation. They can then pair you with a qualified disability lawyer, if you’re interested. It's not necessary to work with our lawyer if you don't want to and you’ll never pay anything upfront — you only have to pay your lawyer after winning benefits.
As you're beginning the application process, it's helpful to understand the differences between SSI and SSDI. SSI is only available to those with few assets and little income. To be eligible, you must earn under roughly $900 per month and have less than $2,000 in other savings and assets ($3,000 if you're married). Meanwhile, SSDI is intended for those who have worked for at least five of the last 10 years and paid taxes.
The average disability check for autism spectrum disorders is $803.52. The maximum possible disability benefit for autism in 2023 is $914 per month for SSI and about $3,600 per month for SSDI. These maximums apply regardless of what condition you have or whether you apply with one condition or multiple.
The actual amount you'll receive depends on your specific circumstances. For SSDI, your benefit amount depends on your work and tax history. For SSI, it's based on your other sources of income. In the case of child claimants (under age 18), parents’ incomes and financial support likely qualify as the child’s income.
If your autism doesn't align with the criteria above, applying for disability is still an option. For adult applicants, keep in mind that you'll need to prove you can't work due to your autism. If you believe you can prove that, you have a chance to qualify for benefits.
In the case of child applicants, qualification may be easier after the child turns 18 because the SSA is less likely to count their parents’ financial support as the child’s income.
Ultimately, qualifying for disability isn't easy. Even for those whose autism does meet the criteria, it's likely their first application will get denied. An estimated 70% to 80% of applicants get turned down on their first attempt, so it's important not to give up if you fall into that group.
An appeal is always an option, and doing so will offer the opportunity to submit new medical evidence and eventually make your case before a judge. The chances of winning a disability appeal are actually much better in front of a judge — more than half of applicants get approved at this stage.
At the bottom of many websites, you'll find a small disclaimer: "We are not a law firm and are not qualified to give legal advice." If you see this, run the other way. These people can't help you: they're prohibited by law from giving meaningful advice, recommending specific lawyers, or even telling you whether you need a lawyer at all.
There’s no disclaimer here: Atticus is a law firm, and we are qualified to give legal advice. We can answer your most pressing questions, make clear recommendations, and search far and wide to find the right lawyer for you.
Two important things to note: If we give you legal advice, it will be through a lawyer on our staff communicating with you directly. (Don't make important decisions about your case based solely on this or any other website.) And if we take you on as a client, it will be through a document you sign. (No attorney-client relationship arises from using this site or calling us.)