April is Autism Acceptance Month! During the month of April we recognize our friends, family members and colleagues on the autism spectrum and further highlight the importance of a society that is more inclusive and accepting of neurodiversity. During April you have probably seen many recognitions of autism; however, not all of them are the same. In this month’s blog, our friends from the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) give us the rundown on the different observances, what it means to be autistic, and how promoting acceptance will create a more inclusive community that supports everyone – no matter where a person falls on the spectrum.
As you probably know, April is when individuals around the country celebrate Autism Awareness Month. However, for myself and many other people I know in the Autistic community, this month can be a source of anxiety rather than celebration. This is because a lot of the information spread around in Autism Awareness campaigns is not helpful, and can even be actively harmful, to the Autistic community.
I’m sure you’ve heard of autism before, and considering it is estimated that 1 in 68 people are autistic, chances are you’ve probably met an autistic person as well. Based on that, you most likely have a basic “awareness” of what autism is. How would you define autism? Here is how it is defined by members of the Autistic community:
Autism is a natural difference in the human mind where the brain develops and functions unusually, producing unusual ways of thinking and moving, and unusual ways of processing sensory input, language, and other information.
The autistic brain develops differently from birth. This means that autism is just another way of seeing the world. The different ways the autistic brain develops affect an autistic person’s language and communication, cognition, sensory processing, motor control, and social behaviors in certain predictable ways. All of these differences, together, make up a developmental disability we call “autism.”
This definition of autism shows how autism is a part of neurodiversity. Neurodiversity, short for neurological diversity, refers to the diversity of human brains and minds, and to the idea that this is a natural, valuable form of diversity. Different people think differently – not just because of differences in culture or life experience, but because their brains are “wired” to work differently.
Neurodiversity is found in every human society. It is similar in many ways to other forms of diversity, such as ethnic, racial, cultural, sexual, or gender diversity. Like these other forms of diversity, neurodiversity can enrich a society or community that embraces it; however, it is frequently met with prejudice and hostility by people who believe that there’s just one “right” way for others to be, to think, or to act.
How does the autistic community’s definition of autism differ from the one you thought of, or the ones you’ve heard before? I would expect that those examples didn’t portray autism in the same light. Rather than being seen from a neurodiversity perspective, many Autism Awareness campaigns paint autism as a list of difficulties and negative qualities.
Public service announcements organized by prominent Autism Awareness organizations often don’t give autistic people the chance to explain autism in their own words. Instead, non-autistic medical professionals and family members of autistic people discuss how autism is a burden or a tragedy. They frame autistic people as suffering because they are autistic, and view autism as a disease that needs to be cured.
As an autistic person, I can assure you that autism does not cause me to suffer. Although being autistic can be difficult at times, it is an important part of my identity and I would not want to change it. If I stopped being autistic, I would no longer be myself.
What does cause me to suffer is seeing and hearing the misguided and discriminatory beliefs espoused in Autism Awareness campaigns. When autistic people see messages in the media that say autistic people are tragedies and burdens, it makes us feel like the world hates us. When people view autism as a disease that needs to be cured, and see autistic people as suffering, that opens the door to mistreatment of autistic individuals in the name of making them appear non-autistic. These practices teach autistic people to be ashamed of who they are at best, and are downright abusive at worst.
Autistic people suffer from prejudice and discrimination. Autistic people suffer when they do not get the support and accommodations they need, when they receive substandard or segregated education or living environments, when they are kept out of the community or kept unemployed, when their civil and human rights are violated, or when their access to communication and the right to make decisions about their lives, bodies, and futures are denied. Autism Awareness campaigns do nothing to address these forms of suffering, and in many ways, actively contribute to this suffering.
This is why the Autistic community has started a counter-movement to Autism Awareness Month, called Autism Acceptance Month. Autism acceptance means embracing autism as a natural part of the spectrum of human diversity and accepting autism as one of many different legitimate, meaningful, and valuable ways of experiencing the world. It means believing that autism doesn’t need to be fixed or cured for autistic people to be happy and live good lives.
Autism acceptance means treating autistic people as members of our community who are entitled to the same rights as everyone else. It means accepting and supporting autistic people as we are, rather than searching for a cure or attempting to make autistic people appear non-autistic. It means helping autistic children grow into autistic adults, rather than mourning the nonexistent non-autistic child they never were. Autism Acceptance Month celebrates autistic people, instead of being afraid of us, having low expectations, or trying to find a way to make us not autistic.
So now that you are aware of the pitfalls of Autism Awareness, how can you practice Autism acceptance? Here are some things you can do:
- You can advocate for inclusive education in your school district to make sure autistic students get the best education
- You can help your autistic child or friend find forms of communication that work for them (like a text-to-speech device)
- You can work with autistic people to fight stigma and stereotypes about autism
- You could hire an autistic person to work for you at the same wage as a comparable non-autistic person
- You could make sure autistic people are included and respected in your community and that your community is accessible to us.
Acceptance means doing everything you can so that your autistic child will grow up into the best autistic adult they can be, supporting your autistic friends in a world that is not designed for us, and working to make our world a better, more inclusive, safer place for autistic people of all ages and abilities. I encourage you to move past just being aware of autism, and start practicing autism acceptance in your community. If more and more non-autistic people join the Autism Acceptance movement, maybe autistic people can finally be free of the anxiety that April brings.
Reid Caplan is Leadership Programs Coordinator for ASAN, and facilitates the Autism Campus Inclusion (ACI) leadership academy for autistic college students, as well as oversees the Autistic Scholars Fellowship program. For more information on the lives of autistic people, visit the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) at http://autisticadvocacy.org/.