April is “Autism Awareness Month,” but many say that mere acceptance is not enough. Autistic people are far too often marginalized and dismissed. Autistic adults are aware that many who claim to speak for the Autism community don’t actually ask Autistic people for their opinion. They are aware that many businesses refuse to give them a chance at meaningful employment. Parents are aware of the isolation that their Autistic children feel when they are mocked by their peers, and they are aware of the lack of sufficient resources to help their children thrive in schools.
It is not enough to be aware one month of the year, and sometimes it seems like the only people really paying attention to Autism Awareness Month are people in the community. The rest seem to just want to donate money to an Autism charity to ease their conscience and feel like they made a difference.
A startling, heartbreaking example of why we need to do MORE happened while my friend, Cindy, was out with her son, Ty. Ty is Autistic and has limited speech. He’s also sweet and funny and loved by many. Cindy gave me permission to share details of an encounter they had while inside a store:
We were approached by an employee who seemed to have an intellectual disability of some kind. “Is he special?” He asked, pointing at Ty. “He sure is!” I said. “He is VERY special and I love him very much.”
The man said, “I’m special too. So I understand. He can be my friend”. I assured him that we could be his friend too, and agreed we’d high-five him whenever we shopped there. He liked this.
“Of course, everyone else thinks we are freaks”, he said.
What could I do but laugh? “Well maybe we are ALL freaks”, I said.
As I read Cindy’s words my emotions changed from inspired to heartbroken.
“Everyone else thinks we are freaks,” he said. NO ONE should have to feel that way. We need to do better to make the world a more accepting place for Autism.
That young man saw a kindred spirit in Ty and asked him to be his friend. If we want to make a difference then we too should be a friend to this man and other Autistic people. And we should do it all year round, not just in April. But how?
Want to REALLY make a difference? ACCEPT. ACCOMMODATE. APPRECIATE. ADVOCATE. Take ACTION. Keep reading for some suggestions of ways that we can help improve the lives of people with Autism. They don’t need our pity, but they do need our support.
First of all, we should treat Autistic individuals with respect. We should take time to teach our children kindness, empathy, and to ACCEPT those who are different. This can actually yield results beyond simple awareness. The amazing way that my son’s classmates recently stood up for him is a beautiful example of what can happen when we are transparent with children about inclusion and disability.
Yes, I said disability. Some people bristle when that term is used in reference to Autism. I do not mean to be disrespectful, but I do want to be realistic. Autism presents both blessings and challenges. Autistic people have to work hard to navigate in the neurotypical world. That is why it is so important for others to be willing to ACCOMMODATE them. Educators need to be flexible in their teaching styles and teach Autistic children the way they need to learn. Employers need to be open to hiring people with any sort of disability so that they can support themselves AND show the world that they really do have something to contribute. If we give them a chance they will surprise us.
We should APPRECIATE the uniqueness of the neurodiverse. We should embrace people for who they are, and not who we expect them to be. We should see their gifts and their inherent value as whole human beings who deserve respect. It is also important to appreciate their perspective, and listen to the voices of people who are #actuallyautistic. For example, an increasing majority of Autistic individuals prefer “Identity-first language” rather than person-first. Yet many non-autistic individuals still view the word “Autistic” as negative and refuse to say it.
We need to ADVOCATE. If we see unkindness or discrimination then we should speak up and FIGHT it. One positive voice in a world full of bigotry and “retard” jokes can make a difference if we stand up for those who are bullied. We can also join movements that work with and for Autistic people.
Then we can take ACTION. Never underestimate the power of simple acts of kindness We can be a friend to an Autistic person, or encourage our children to play with the child who is alone on the swings every day at recess. We could reach out to the parent of an Autistic child and ask, “Is there anything I can do to help?” We can invite their family into our homes and not exclude autistic children from birthday parties.
Really, the possibilities are endless. What matters is that we do more than simply being aware of Autism.
For more information on Autism Acceptance month you can visit this website: http://www.autismacceptancemonth.com/about/. It has a lot of helpful information, links, and resources.
ACCEPT. ACCOMMODATE. APPRECIATE. ADVOCATE. Take ACTION. What will YOU do for the Autistic community this April?
(A version of this post first appeared at Seriously Not Boring in April of 2015.)
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