I’ve been an active part of the online autistic community for the better part of four years, despite it turning out that I’ve been autistic my whole life.
I was only professionally identified as such at age 31 in August 2016. At first, I was all “Yeah, awareness is great! Raise awareness!” because that was the prominent narrative in the online space.
However, I would notice that after Autism Awareness week had come and gone, not much ever changed… people returned to their usual levels of ambivalence towards the neurodivergent community and not much was spoken about again until the following year’s awareness campaign.
A Shift in The Autism Narrative
This was when I realised that the narrative needed to change and noticed that other autistic advocates online felt the same way I did: we didn’t need more awareness, we needed acceptance.
Awareness is a very passive activity. you can be aware of someone’s unique needs but not actively do anything about it to help accommodate them; on the other hand, acceptance is a game-changer.
Acceptance asks, what can I do to make this environment more accessible for you? What can I change to make this experience less triggering or stressful?
By implementing acceptance towards our neurodivergent siblings, it can literally mean the difference between them living a life of isolation in avoidance of the world that’s not built for them, versus living a fulfilled existence where they can manage their neurological differences and not be seen as “less than” anyone else.
I could very easily have kept my autism diagnosis to myself, only disclosing on a need-to-know basis; unfortunately, many people still feel like this. I can guarantee I’m not the only autistic person in my workplace, but I’m certainly one of the most vocal.
I did not see how keeping my newly-discovered truth quiet helped anyone. If I ended up having a bad sensory day that spun me into a meltdown, I did not want to be silently judged as not having control over myself, being perceived as behaving like a child having a temper tantrum, when the reality is that the sensory input was physically painful to me.
I could not mask my difficulties for a second longer.
Likewise, being smirked at because I’d be wearing sunglasses inside on a cloudy day with massive over-ear headphones in a relatively quiet office; the sunglasses help minimise the chances of sensory overwhelm from a visual standpoint, and the headphones help block extraneous office noise like mobile phones ringing, calendar alerts pinging, conversations occurring, and multi-function devices printing.
Neurotypical people are intrinsically better able to adapt to blocking out this sensory input, whereas the neurodiverse brain is far more tuned in to taking in every little sensory stimulus.
Acceptance can take many forms, and I encourage those who may not have a personal connection to autism to lean into the unknown: seek out the experiences of autistic adults to get different perspectives on what it’s like to be autistic, how they experience the world, and actively seek out how you can help adapt either your own actions or the environment you work in to make it more accessible for neurodivergent people.
Believe it or not, a lot of the modifications that can make things better for autistics also make it better for neurotypical people, too!