by Jessie Pappagianopoulos, MA
Aspire Assistant Program Manager of Teen and Adult Programs
Spring has sprung and April is upon us. In addition to longer days with more sunshine, you will likely begin to see events geared towards shedding light on autism and many individuals donning the color blue. Since 1970, this time has been known as Autism Awareness Month; a time during which organizations work to educate the broader population on the nuances of autism spectrum disorder and build greater understanding of the autistic experience.
We have seen the widespread impact of this month over the years – many people you meet now have at least a rudimentary understanding of the diagnosis of autism. Media is including more neurodiverse characters (albeit more work in this area is still needed to promote further diversity in representation). Venues often provide sensory-friendly spaces or tools. While spreading education is a critical foundation for fostering a society that meets the needs of autistic individuals, it is vital to go a step further by working towards the cultivation of autism acceptance. Many organizations have been making the shift towards “Autism Acceptance Month.”
While building awareness is an ongoing effort, the push to promote acceptance is crucial in sparking real change. Acceptance involves communicating respect and appreciation, identifying commonalities while highlighting strengths of diversity, and celebrating the unique traits of individuals on the autism spectrum. It means confronting our own internal biases and making progress towards building an inclusive society where the needs of neurodiverse individuals are not only acknowledged, but respected. A current Aspire teen participant said it well when sharing that, “awareness isn’t necessarily the opposite of acceptance. They’re pretty much orthogonal axes.”
How does one take actionable steps towards promoting acceptance? Begin by listening to and amplifying autistic voices. Individuals on the autism spectrum are the true experts on autism. Listening to their perspectives is essential in truly understanding their lived experiences. Start by filling your social media feeds with more neurodiverse accounts. Read articles, blogs, and books by autistic authors. Ask questions! Remember that listening is learning. In alignment with the Autistic Self Advocacy Network’s motto (“nothing about us without us”), ask for input and feedback when possible if working to design a service or make change that may impact autistic individuals.
In April, I invite you to engage in promoting acceptance in your daily life. (Check out an earlier Aspire Wire article for concrete examples of communicating acceptance in practice). And then, I urge you one thing further. Don’t let these efforts cease with the start of May. When the clock strikes 12 on April 30th, continue expressing authentic appreciation in interactions with neurodiverse individuals. Persist in asking questions and opening up true dialogue. Continue reading and sharing the words of autistic authors. On that note, I leave you with a quote that stuck with me, written by Penni Winter, an autistic writer and artist: “We’re here. We’ve always been here. We’re human. Accept us. Embrace us. Include us. You might be surprised at what happens.”