For years, April has been observed in several countries around the world as Autism Awareness Month. Because of this, autism is now a household word, and most people are at least somewhat familiar with the kinds of challenges we face. With some help from the internet, the autism community is more connected than ever.
There's no question that autism awareness has led to some important accomplishments. However, I think it's time to take the concept even further. Some autistic-run organizations, such as the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN), have proposed that we make the change to Autism Acceptance Month.
It might seem like a small change. Maybe unimportant, or strange to even consider. Awareness to acceptance? Let me see if I can sell you on it.
First thing, we're not removing anything from the spirit by taking the word 'awareness' out of the name. After all, it's hard to pro-actively accept something that you aren't aware of.
I think the only problem many of us in the autistic community have with Autism Awareness Month is how the awareness seems to be implemented. Most people seem to approach it the same way you would approach cancer awareness, as a horrible disease that affects millions of people, and needs to be stopped as soon as possible.
Most autistic people feel that's a poor representation of how we see ourselves. We recognize that we have different challenges that can make life difficult for us. However, we don't feel that this is a good reason to change who we are.
In addition, certain rhetoric, such as that of reclaiming lost children, can be damaging to some autistic people. You have to remember that this is how we were born, and it's how we'll always be. The notion that a person must be normal in order to qualify as a full person or to be seen as valuable to society can lead to severe depression when it's discovered that that's an impossible goal.
Another thing I often hear this time of year is to say that if a person displays a vaguely autistic trait, then they might be autistic. For example, if you see a child screaming in public, remember that they might be autistic. I find this to be useless, accomplishing nothing except creating unnecessary barriers between autistic and normal people.
Instead, let's try to keep in mind that autistic behavior isn't so different from that of a normal person. To use a similar example, if you see a child that you know to be autistic screaming in public, try to remember that most children use some form of tantrums to alert nearby adults that something is wrong.
So what should we be observing during Autism Acceptance Month? I would say that the focus should be on the positives. Recognize the positive traits of autism and think about what autistic people are good at. Remember the autistic people in your life. And above all, never forget that no matter what we look like or how we act, we are people, just like you.
I don't mean to ignore the negatives. We've all heard about social difficulties, problems reading nonverbal communication, repetitive, stereotyped motions (also called stims), adherence to routines, and narrow interests. Those are very real, and can be problematic in certain situations.
However, I believe most of the positive traits are the same traits as the negatives, but in a different context. Let's examine that with the above examples.
Let me go ahead and start at the end of the list, with narrow interests. I prefer to think of them as focused interests. In fact, the narrowed focus allows us to learn in depth details about that interest very quickly. Most of us will branch out into related subjects when we find we have to learn about something else to learn more about our interests. This also fits with the way most autistic people learn, starting with specifics and branching out into more general subjects.
As for routines, most autistic people, and in fact, most people in general, don't always like to deal with the unexpected. Many of us also need to take time to process how to handle a situation. Having a routine helps because it simultaneously creates a preset series of situations, meaning the thinking has all been done ahead of time, and limits the likelihood of unexpected circumstances.
I know part of the problem is that routines can sometimes be inefficient. Think about how many neuronormal people you know with inefficient routines. I don't mean to say just let it go, but when we're talking about acceptance, we should allow the same amount of leniency for inefficient behaviors toward both autistic and normal people.
Stimming is another coping mechanism. As far as I can tell, there are two main reasons to stim. One is to keep the mind running during times of high activity or near inactivity. The other is to burn off nervous energy to diffuse an impending meltdown.
In the spirit of acceptance, I should point out that stimming is another thing that neuronormal people engage in. Have you ever found yourself tapping a pen? That's the first type of stimming. How about nervously pacing? That's the second type. What would happen if someone were to stop you from either? Considering that, it should come as no surprise that stopping it isn't usually the best idea.
The social difficulties are a little tougher. You have to bear in mind that autistic people tend to be highly logical. As any Star Trek fan can tell you, human interaction tends to be highly illogical. Simply put, our brains are not wired to pick up on social rules. We're capable of it, but only through deliberate learning and conscious observation.
On the other hand, having a highly logical mind can be a huge advantage in several areas, including science, music, language, and many more.
One final note, take a moment to think of the autistic people in your life. What have they contributed to your experience on Earth? What would your life be like without them? It's likely that you know at least one or two autistic people, even if you don't know it.
To paraphrase notable autism activist Ari Ne'eman, normal should not be the goal. Happiness should be the goal. If you can, try to learn from us, autistic people, about autism this Autism Acceptance Month.