A Shift from Autism Awareness to Autism Acceptance – The Durango Herald
April is National Autism Acceptance Month.
The 30-day period that was previously known as Autism Awareness Month began in 1970. Ironically, specific criteria for diagnosing autism were not available until 1980, although the term and concept were invented as early as 1911. Between 1911 and 1980, autism was considered a form of schizophrenia. Over the years we have had research and better definitions for diagnostic criteria. The causes of autism have been suggested and debunked (childhood vaccines don’t cause autism, in case you missed that memo).
Over time, autism has also been recognized as a spectrum of disorders. The associated diagnosis Asperger’s Syndrome was added as a diagnosis in 1994 and then removed as a separate diagnosis in 2013. This left us with the currently accepted diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder.
But I would argue that all diagnostic and definitional changes potentially have less of an impact on how we view autism than the subtle shift from autism awareness to autism acceptance.
For most people with autism, understanding the causes of autism and the intricacies of diagnosis does nothing to improve their lives. Neither does the passive “consciousness” of autism. What we need is true understanding and a commitment to breaking down barriers and empowering people with autism. People with autism need access to educational opportunities, jobs, intimate and social relationships, and good housing. Mere awareness does not achieve this.
Worse than passivity, the term awareness was also framed as a threat to be aware of, the same way we might be aware of domestic violence or the opioid epidemic. The result of eradicating autism is the eradication of autistic people, which is far more dangerous and threatening than autism itself could ever be.
So, in 2011, the folks at the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network suggested moving from awareness to acceptance. This change is not simply a semantic change. One definition of acceptance is “the belief in the goodness of something”, and close synonyms include approval, recognition, cooperation, affirmation, and acknowledgment.
According to ASAN advocates, “Acceptance is action, and it goes beyond changing the language we use. In order to truly practice autism acceptance, autism organizations must also change the way they think about autism and the way they work to represent people with autism.
It also requires a shift in how the general population views autism and which voices matter in the conversation. Since autism was first recognized, the conversation has been dominated by medical professionals, scientists, social service professionals and families. Autism acceptance places people with autism as experts in their lives, goals, and needs.
In that vein, I need to be clear that I’m not autistic. Listening to me is not enough. If you think what I’m sharing may have some validity (or especially if it doesn’t!), take the time to research autistic voices. They are easily found at https://autisticadvocacy.org/, and a growing number of autism bloggers and vloggers are available on the internet.
Tara Kiene is President and CEO of Community Connections Inc.