Autistic Acceptance vs. Autism Awareness5 min read

There is a point of con­tention in the autism com­mu­nity, not to be con­fused with the autistic com­mu­nity: aware­ness versus accep­tance. Which of these do autistic indi­vid­uals truly need?

Being aware of some­thing means drawing your atten­tion to it. In the med­ical com­mu­nity, aware­ness is asso­ci­ated with action. Breast Cancer Awareness aims to find a cure for breast cancer. Suicide Awareness strives to bring an end to sui­cide. Diabetes Awareness hopes to develop a cure for dia­betes.

Autism Awareness is asso­ci­ated with the desire to cure autism. This is prob­lem­atic for two rea­sons. First, the cure for autism does not and never will exist. Second, even if it did, a large por­tion of autis­tics would not be inter­ested in it.

Autism is not a dis­ease. Autism is essen­tially a less-common brain type. It would be impos­sible to cure indi­vid­uals of autism without changing key parts of who they are.

I spoke with sev­eral autistic indi­vid­uals and par­ents of autistic chil­dren. The fol­lowing is what they had to say:

I can’t stop being me, and wouldn’t want to stop being me. The sug­ges­tion that we would need a cure hurts because that’s what it seems to imply- that we shouldn’t be who we are.

Brandi, home­schooling parent

I wish it were easier for my daughter to pick out clothes that don’t cause her dis­tress. I wish finding food that she enjoys were a more simple task. I wish she didn’t get easily over­whelmed by change and over­stim­u­lating envi­ron­ments. But, I love her beau­tiful mind. I love that she is truthful and ana­lyt­ical and pas­sionate… would I like life to be easier for her? Absolutely. Would I take away her strug­gles at the risk of destroying her strengths? Absolutely not.

– Beatrice, Early child­hood pro­fes­sional

I think this is based in some­thing I heard some­where, but if you made my autism go away, you’d make me go away.

-Emily Volz, rab­binical stu­dent and writer

When a bril­liant writer, painter, or dancer is dis­cov­ered, we don’t judge them by their lack of interest in eco­nomics. Autistic minds are selec­tively bril­liant and, rather than focusing on their weak­nesses, we should be drawing out their tal­ents.

Wendy Katz, 39, VA, autistic blogger and social worker

But what about people with “low functioning” autism?

Many people believe that while those with “mild” autism might not need a cure, those with more “severe” cases do. One problem with this line of thinking is that a per­son’s place on the autism spec­trum is not linear.

A child entering therapy for autism might be con­sid­ered “low func­tioning.” Perhaps they have yet to toilet train at the age of five, have lim­ited con­ver­sa­tion skills, and are not pro­gressing at the same rate as their peers aca­d­e­m­i­cally.

After receiving occu­pa­tional and speech therapy, they may make huge strides in these areas. It is not that the child is inca­pable of learning; the child simply needs to be under­stood and taught in alter­na­tive ways. Once they have acquired new skills, they gain a new func­tion label: they move from the per­ceived “severe” end of the spec­trum to the “mild” end.

But, in this sce­nario, the autism did not change.  The accep­tance and teaching methods did.

This tells us that if we were to somehow “cure” those with more [per­ceived] “severe” cases of autism, we would poten­tially be rob­bing them of the life they could build for them­selves as an autistic with proper accom­mo­da­tions. We would be need­lessly altering a core piece of their iden­tity.

The second and per­haps more impor­tant problem with seeking a cure for autism is that even those con­sid­ered “low func­tioning” are valu­able human beings exactly as they are. They do not need to be improved upon in order to be worthy and autonomous indi­vid­uals.

I’m low-functioning. My autism is “severe.” My house is always a mess, my hus­band picks up a lot of my slack, and I have a hard time going out in public due to sen­sory issues. I’m a great mother, but I have help with child­care, too.

There are times when I can’t speak, and if I do, what comes out is gib­berish. My exec­u­tive func­tion is so low that some­times the steps to com­plete the most basic of tasks, like paying a bill or sending a text, are over­whelming beyond my capacity.

Yet, I run one of the most pro­lific non-profit dis­ability web­sites in the world. In some ways, the rest of the world is low-functioning com­pared to me. And that’s okay. It should be okay that I am really good at a few things and ter­rible at every­thing else.

But, given room to be who I am, there are many people depen­dent on me. Inter-dependence is not inher­ently neg­a­tive. It should be a point towards which we all strive, to con­tribute according to our ability levels and strengths.  I use my strengths to bol­ster others who lack those spe­cific skills, just like others help me in the same way.

The end product is better than what any of us could’ve cre­ated on our own.

— Terra Vance, founder of The Aspergian

My daughter being non­speaking and aggres­sive at times during melt­downs is hard on both of us, but she is also her own unique person, and I lit­er­ally couldn’t pic­ture her without autism. If they devel­oped a cure for Autism I would prob­ably imme­di­ately say no. So many of her autistic traits are what I love so much. I wouldn’t want to lose her energy or zeal for life… I feel so strongly about my baby. She’s the best.

– Amelia, mother of autistic daughter

My autistic chil­dren are exactly who and how I could ever want them to be. It is as the allistic cul­ture crashes into them, and they into it, where the gap lies that absolutely needs extra con­sid­er­a­tion, accom­mo­da­tion, & mod­i­fi­ca­tion so that these amazing beings get a chance to con­tribute to the world at large.

- Jen Bluhm, ND mother of 3, Artist & Advocate

My son is non­speaking and con­sid­ered “severe.”  I still wouldn’t cure his autism. I would not be able to sep­a­rate what makes his life dif­fi­cult at times from what helps mold his per­son­ality. He is a won­derful person whom I would never change.

– Matthew, Customer Service Professional

Autism is nei­ther all good nor all bad. Like most things in life, it falls into the gray. Autistic indi­vid­uals face unique chal­lenges and some­times require more help with daily tasks than their neu­rotyp­ical coun­ter­parts do, but they also often have tal­ents and strengths as a direct result of their neu­ro­di­ver­sity.

These dif­fer­ences give us room to learn from each other, and gain wisdom from the expe­ri­ences of those who are not like our­selves. These vari­ances allow us to each demon­strate our unique strengths. They create the oppor­tu­nity for us to turn to each other in times of need.

Autism does not need a cure because autis­tics are not broken neu­rotyp­i­cals. They are not improp­erly designed humans. Neurodivergent indi­vid­uals are simply built dif­fer­ently. They are a break in the pat­tern of what is familiar and expected– and isn’t that won­derful?

So, yes, be aware of the Autistic Community. But please be aware of more than our exis­tence. Be aware of our needs. Be aware of our strengths. Be willing to accept us exactly as we are.

3 Comments

  1. Thank You Brittney. Thank you, Thank you. 65 yrs old now,Diagnosed at 58, Heard the word Aspergers at age 50. I knew I was dif­ferent ever since the fourth grade when Mrs Heinz told me to “…Wipe that stupid smile off your face. What are you? Stupid or some­thing”. My first Labels were Dyslexic, OCD, A.D.D (Non hyper,) and Dyspraxia. Back in the day we didn’t have the Labels. Now we use them to clarify our Dignity. Thank you for what you do.

  2. Thank you so much for this article! I espe­cially loved this part, “But, in this sce­nario, the autism did not change. The accep­tance and teaching methods did.” Yes, exactly! We just learn dif­fer­ently!

  3. Thank you for this. Self-diagnosed Aspergers at 75, I always felt dif­ferent. So many people don’t under­stand and don’t try to. If you are dif­ferent you just need to be made the same and that’s where they stop.

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