Why We Need a Shift in the Social and Medical Model of Our Approach to Autism

Project by Polygence alum Mackenzie

Why We Need a Shift in the Social and Medical Model of Our Approach to Autism

Project's result

Research Paper submitted to Research Archive of Rising Scholars

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Autism is a neurotype experienced by over 75 million people worldwide. The DSM-5 describes autism as a developmental disorder with social communication deficits and a tendency to participate in ritualistic behaviors. In 2013, autism was renamed to autism spectrum disorder due to the heterogeneity in causes and outward behaviors of autistic individuals. The only empirical treatment for autism at the moment is the controversial applied behavioral analysis (ABA). In society, autism is often misunderstood and mischaracterized by stereotypes. These misunderstandings can lead to individuals on the spectrum feeling excluded from common activities or at a lack of general opportunities, causing feelings of rejection and loneliness. Additionally, current diagnostic materials and information sources on the topic are using harmful language to describe the traits of autistic individuals, thus further contributing to mental health issues like anxiety and depression. ABA has been criticized as trying to make autistic people more neurotypical, as opposed to accepting them for who they are and asking them for input into their treatment. Although it is important that autistic people self-advocate for their needs, paradigm shifts such as the double empathy problem and the social model of disability could change the way that treating and understanding autistic people is approached, and perhaps remove the underlying concept of normal altogether.



Polygence mentor

PhD Doctor of Philosophy


Psychology, Neuroscience


neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science, human neuroimaging, neurodevelopmental disorders, neurodegeneration




Hi! My name is Mackenzie, and my project advocates for a change in how social and medical models approach autism. I have always been interested in neuroscience and neurodivergence, so this paper allowed me to explore my passions further and dive deeper into a subject I enjoy learning about!

Graduation Year


Project review

“The whole writing process with rounds of writing feedback exceeded my expectations. I was very nervous about beginning the writing process prior to working with my mentor, however my mentor was super helpful in getting me started and then throughout the whole process provided very helpful feedback. The writing feedback rounds have also been very helpful. I like the ability to receive feedback from somebody completely unfamiliar with my project and perhaps with a different background than that of my mentor. Another aspect that exceeded my expectations, was Polygence's team's response to feedback, questions, or concerns. When things didn't quite go smoothly (which is bound to happen no matter what), Polygence promptly responded and amended the situation, which I very much appreciated.”

About my mentor

“I could not have asked for a better mentor than Arianna. She was kind and genuinely cared about me feeling successful and pleased with my project. She provided guidance every step of the way and always outlined clear next steps so that I felt confident throughout the entire process. Arianna consistently went above and beyond to help me reach my desired end date and project goals. I am extremely grateful to have gotten to work with Arianna!”