Details: My name is Karis and I am an autistic female. I am involved in autism and disability advocacy. I am also a voice major who hopes to go into music therapy and work with autistic and otherwise disabled children and show them the wonders of music and how it can help them cope with stressful situations and circumstances. You can find me on tumblr at spoonie-diary.tumblr.com.
During April, thousands of people learn about autism. There are walks, fundraisers, donations, and charities. These seem like really great things; however, the vast majority of them focus on making people aware of autism and what it entails.
This seems good on the surface, but what is troubling is the intention behind the awareness. In many cases, the intention is to show people that autism is an illness that children suffer from. People are told stories by parents of autistic children. These parents lament their struggles: how picky their child is, how exhausting the meltdowns are, the constant care the child must receive, and how their autistic child takes the attention away from neurotypical children who frequently feel left out.
There is a place for parents to tell stories like these and for them to gain support, but their stories should not be the only ones being told. Who is listening to the autistic children and adults, each of whom has a unique story of their own? Who is asking them what led to the meltdown, why they won’t eat hot dogs, what they think when their parents complain about what a burden they are?
Most campaigns focus solely on awareness: the idea that autism exists and is a thing that must be eradicated.
What if more companies and people focused on acceptance: the idea that autistic people are humans, with human experiences, needs, wants, and emotions?
Take the example of a nonverbal autistic person who needs a way to communicate. There are two options: send the person to speech therapy where they will most likely struggle and feel frustrated and which may not even work for the person; or invest in an AAC device and teach them how to use it to communicate.
The first option is an attempt to force the autistic person to conform to social expectations no matter how painful it may be, so that the majority—neurotypical people—will not be uncomfortable. This is what awareness leads to.
The second option takes into consideration the very real limitations of the autistic person and finds the most comfortable way for them to achieve the exact same goal: clear communication. This is what acceptance leads to.
When autism is accepted as an integral part of the person, as an important part of their identity, the autistic person feels respected and safe. They are not taught that they must be fixed; instead, they learn that the traits that make up their identity are simply a different way of existing and experiencing the world.
When I as an autistic person hear, “I am aware of you,” I assume that they are aware of the stereotypes attached to autism and will either pity me for having to suffer so much, or will not believe that I’m really autistic when I fail to display certain traits.
In contrast, when I hear, “I accept you,” I feel safe around that person. I know that no matter what I do or don’t do, they will treat me like a whole person who does not need to be fixed, just respected and given accommodations when needed.
Awareness leads to pity.
Acceptance leads to respect.