By Andrew E. Harris, MEd
Each April I find myself struggling with “Autism Awareness Month”. On the one hand, of course I want the world to know more about the autism spectrum. I want to amplify the voices of autistic people, and give the wider public a chance to develop empathy and understanding of the autistic experience. On the other hand, though, I know the impact of the month on the folks I work with. This month, for many autistic people, feels like an over-abundance of pity, a highlight of their own perceived “defectiveness,” or an opportunity to heap praise on parents and professionals that support autistic individuals. There has been a growing chorus of voices within the autistic community calling for an end to this era of awareness, and beginning a new chapter focused on fostering acceptance of those on the spectrum. Acceptance, to me, is a conscious action that communicates respect, understanding, and an individual’s inherent value.
To that point, a solid argument can be made that our society has reached a tipping point in awareness. I wouldn’t roll out the “mission accomplished” banner yet, but in the past couple of years there has been a boom of autistic characters in the media (there’s a Wikipedia page dedicated to this, of course). Highlights include shows like Atypical and The Good Doctor, and movies like Please Stand By (starring Dakota Fanning) and Power Rangers (in which the Blue Ranger explains, “My brain doesn’t work like yours. That’s not a bad thing.”). These portrayals in the media demonstrate the public’s growing awareness and curiosity, and serve to continue to increase awareness and educate people.
I can also see how far we’ve come when I talk about what I do for a living. When I used to tell people that I worked with autistic kids, I’d get confused stares; now almost everyone I talk to knows someone who knows someone that is autistic. People are certainly becoming more aware of autism, but that doesn’t necessarily make life any better for autistic people. To make an impact, people need to take what they know and use it to be more understanding, empathic, kind and supportive. To impact the lives of autistic individuals, people need to be more accepting.
What, then, does acceptance look like? How is it different than awareness? To me, acceptance requires changing your behavior based on what you have become aware of. Here are three basic examples:
|What I am aware of||
How I communicate acceptance
|Some autistic people are uncomfortable with direct eye contact||
-When someone uses atypical eye gaze, I don’t feel disrespected or assume they aren’t paying attention
-When someone else tells an autistic person to “look at me when I'm talking, I try to facilitate a discussion about the nuances of neurodiverse eye gaze
|Some autistic people think better when they can move their bodies (pace, fidget, etc.)||
- When I’m setting up a space for a group, I organize the room to have ample space to get up from a chair or desk
- If a teen gets frustrated with another teen in my group because they are getting up a lot or moving around more, I try to increase the group’s understanding and acceptance by encouraging the teen to explain why they need to move
|Some autistic people are more sensitive to environmental variables (lighting, temperature, background noises) than neurotypical people||
- When I start working with a group, I acknowledge differences in sensory profiles and share my own sensitivities, and encourage the group to advocate for changes in the environment that would help them participate
- When I see that someone is anxious or uncomfortable, I consider environmental variables and offer to make changes to the space that I think might help
As April approaches, I invite each of you to look for opportunities to engage in the action of acceptance. Think about what you have learned about autism, and how you will turn that knowledge into action. If you see a five-year-old spinning and stimming in the supermarket, throw them a smile and offer their parents a reassuring look – spinning doesn’t hurt anybody and we should all be able to be ourselves. If one of the kids in your child’s class is on the spectrum and doesn’t get birthday party invitations, talk to their parents and see if having a quieter area at your kid’s birthday party would give them space and time to decompress and attend. Or, if you have a coworker on the spectrum, help them decode social interactions that don’t go too well, and let them know that figuring out all the social stuff at work can be hard for anyone. Armed as we are with knowledge and awareness, we can now use it to communicate respect, appreciation, value and acceptance to everyone on the spectrum. Let’s make the month of April #AutismAcceptance.