Last month we celebrated Autism Acceptance Month, including World Autism Day on April 2. This celebration started with the Autism Society of America’s first National Autistic Children’s Week in 1972 and has grown considerably since then.
As the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) says, “this is a time to reflect on our progress and reaffirm our commitment to supporting … the needs of people on the autism spectrum, now and into the future.”
But because autism affects every autistic person differently, there have often been different perspectives on what the autistic community needs and what best serves autistic individuals.
For a long time many people referred to April as “Autism Awareness Month” and used that framework to display puzzle piece images and blue lights, share social media posts about autism diagnosis, and raise funds for various causes and non-profits.
Recently, however, the language we are using to talk about autism in general – and this month in particular – is changing. And that is a good thing.
Most awareness campaigns tended to focus on how many people have autism, how to detect possible signs of autism in young children, and even sometimes promoted research aimed at finding a cure for autism.
From a pure awareness standpoint, those efforts were at least partially successful. Today, society has a greater awareness of autism than ever before. But awareness alone has not been enough to improve the lives of autistic individuals, who still often struggle throughout life with issues ranging from social challenges to appropriate work opportunities to independent living. For them, education about the autism community is important, but what they really desire is accommodations and inclusion in order to have true support from their communities and to live their best possible and most fulfilled lives.
On top of that, many autistic people expressed dissatisfaction with the awareness messages they were seeing, especially anything aimed at trying to fix them when they didn’t feel broken. It was felt that “awareness” was used too often when talking about disease and illness, and that “acceptance” was a more positive way to destigmatize the condition and shift the focus back towards support. Words matter, and what was expressed was that they wanted more actual help.
Elle Love, an autistic writer, wrote that: “Creating awareness was the first step in our conversation about disability inclusion, however, acceptance enforces awareness and reflects how our society should celebrate the differences and abilities that neurodivergent people have.”
Stemming from that thinking, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) has called April “Autism Acceptance Month” since 2011, and the Autism Society of America replaced “Awareness” with “Acceptance” for the first time in 2020.
Autism is not a choice. It is not the choice of a parent to have an autistic child, and it is not that child’s choice to be born autistic. But acceptance is a choice, and it is a vitally important one in our society. Regardless of how autism presents in anyone, that person is deserving of respect and support, and as much inclusion and accommodation as possible.
Although there is still a lot for communities to learn about autism, it’s just as important for people to put what they learn into action. The shift toward Autism Acceptance Month will hopefully lead to more resources for people on the spectrum and their families, better quality of life, and a more inclusive world. Let’s all try to keep that in mind and do whatever we can to support those ideals -- not just in April, but ongoing throughout the year.