Acceptance versus Awareness: a brief commentary on the great debate3 min read

With “Autism Awareness Month” around the corner, it’s time to have an important conversation. Awareness is wonderful and very much needed, but is it enough?

On the face of it, it would seem in Western society, awareness of autism is growing. But, is it enough to be aware of autism?

To use an analogy, take road signs. We are all aware of road signs, but unless we have learned to drive and studied the highway code, it is likely that we don’t know the meaning of individual signs and what their implications are.

A block of random, uncommon road signs
Traffic signs image from drive-safely.net

In much the same way, many people have heard of autism, but have failed to understand how it affects individuals and what it means for their lives. This includes educators and support professionals who work with autistic people. They are not driving down the same road as those of us who were born autistic.

So how can we tackle this issue?

People need to listen to autistic voices. If an autistic person is talking openly online about their experiences, it is not rude to ask an autistic person about autism; in fact, many of us would be delighted to discuss it with you.

Autism is more than a diagnosis, it is our entire way of existing. It is our way of life.

For those of us on the spectrum, it is at the core of our identity and goes a long way towards defining our existence. This is why many of us prefer identity-first language (autistic person) over person-first language (person with autism).

Our autism is not something that we can set aside. It is a fundamental part of us. It is not something negative to be pushed to the end of the sentence.

Beyond awareness, we also need acceptance. This, at least in part, comes with awareness. Many people believe autism to be a negative qualifier, like a disease, and as such cannot accept it in their own children. This internalized shame leads to the pervasive problem of quack “cures” such as MMS, GCMaF, CEASE, and chelation therapy. All of these can be very dangerous to autistic children, but parents still abuse their children via these therapies because they cannot accept their child as inseparable from autism.

Once again, acceptance can be attained by acknowledging autistic voices.

“You’re not like my child!” I hear you cry. To an extent this is true, autistic minds, experiences, and personalities are extremely diverse; however, we also face many of the same struggles. The “not like my child” gambit is often used to invalidate the experiences of autistic adults. It’s a cop-out used when someone does not want to accept what they are learning.

True awareness and acceptance are vital to the fair treatment of autistic people in modern society. We have come a long way since the days of forced institutionalisation as the default (although institutionalisation is still a big problem in many bplaces), but there is still a long way to go.

Until autistic voices are listened to, and our experience and neurotype accepted, children will continue to suffer at the hands of abusive cures and worse.

Autism is a beautiful thing, despite the difficulties that come with it. Autism is many things to a lot of people– it’s a community, a way of thinking, a way of understanding the world, and it’s a growing culture.

This autism awareness month, make the difference and learn from an autistic person, allow them to show you the world through their eyes. Shift from autism awareness to autistic acceptance.

David Gray-Hammond
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