As April comes, so does Autism Awareness Month, which many autistic people dread. While many well-intentioned, non-autistic people assume that this month properly recognizes the autism community, many members of this community feel differently.
As an autistic woman, I also feel that Autism Awareness Month doesn’t represent me or respect me. I want supporters of the autism community to celebrate Autism Acceptance Month instead.
The case against Autism Awareness Month
When one thinks of "awareness" in connection with conditions, they think of life-threatening conditions that require a cure, like cancer or heart disease. The term "awareness" has a fear-inducing ring to it, as if autism is something ominous about which people should be on high alert. It implies that autism is a tragedy that needs to be solved—to be cured.
However, many people on the autism spectrum, including me, do not believe that their autism is an inherently negative aspect of themselves. Being autistic has made me so much more sensitive and empathetic towards other people than I would be had I been born non-autistic. I have an eye for details that many other people don’t notice. Life on the autism spectrum makes me unique. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I not only accept that I am autistic, but I’m proud of it.
Think of it this way: many autistic people are part of an identity group. In other words, to be autistic is part of our identity, just like someone’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or religion.
That’s why it hurts our feelings so much when people say they want to "raise awareness" of our condition, as if it’s a plague. While autism awareness may be well-intentioned, it inadvertently cements autism’s status as a kind of enemy that needs to be fought and eradicated. When autism is inseparable from who we are, "awareness" sounds as if people see us, ourselves, as the enemy. It sounds as if people want to eradicate us and the autism we represent. Thus, when people attack autism, they aren’t just attacking some intangible disorder. They’re targeting a whole group of human beings for being different. If people believe that we shouldn’t exist because we’re different, then that starts to resemble eugenics.
You, dear reader, may think I’m being extreme or overly dramatic when I use the word "eugenics." However, I can assure you that I’m not exaggerating one bit. During the Holocaust, Nazi Germany desired to create a "master race." This supposedly flawless race excluded people with disabilities, or "life unworthy of life," as the Nazis called them. Thus, Nazis sent people with disabilities, including developmental disabilities, to die in gas chambers. They targeted the disability population before any other group.
Nazis reframed this mass murder as a compassionate "euthanasia program." While the Nazis went about their hatred of people with disabilities in a drastic way, their actions represent the ultimate goal behind "awareness" campaigns: erase autism, and by extension, prevent future generations of people on the autism spectrum. The Nazis’ actions can be viewed as what happens when negative views of autism are taken to their extreme.
The stigma behind autism
The people who created the infamous "puzzle piece" of autism might have been onto something, but in a way that they never expected. The real missing puzzle piece the autism community faces is that they constantly have to battle ignorance and dehumanization from non-autistic society. There are so many people who stereotype, shame, and silence this group just because they’re autistic. The stigma of being on the autism spectrum is very real.
The need for autism acceptance is incredibly urgent because we are so far from having it. Discrimination and biases against autistic people have dire ripple effects. Eighty-five percent of autistic college graduates are unemployed. In the U.K., 79% of autistic people reported being socially isolated. Seventy-eight percent of autistic children have a mental health condition.
I know that I have faced countless microaggressions from non-autistic people. Last year, my professor made fun of the way some people on the spectrum flap their hands, mimicking what he called a "weird gesture." In a class where students were otherwise outspoken about their beliefs, nobody deemed this moment worthy of speaking up to the professor. My school’s head of diversity and inclusion told me this moment counted as a bias incident and encouraged me to report it, but I did not do so out of fear of retribution from my professor. A student in that class later justified the poor treatment of people like me with the fact that we cost the economy lots of money.
Then there’s the time where I "came out" as an autistic person to a supposedly-progressive group on campus. Suddenly after that, the group leader looked nervous whenever I spoke, as if I was a social bomb waiting to explode. And I can’t forget that moment when a person who knew I was autistic had the gall to let me know that she recently met some autistic people who were "surprisingly normal." She said it right to my face without a second thought. These are just some of the many disrespectful experiences I’ve had with non-autistic people.
In my experience, autism acceptance is conditional, at best. Non-autistic people love to claim that autistic people lack tact, social skills, or empathy, but they might want to look at themselves in the mirror before they judge anyone else.
We need autism acceptance now
Anti-autism biases are exactly why it’s so crucial that non-autistic people are facilitators of change. They need to spread the message that autistic people should be embraced, not looked down upon.
Not only does acceptance promote the wellbeing of the autism community, but it humanizes us. Autism Acceptance Month recognizes that people on the autism spectrum are human beings with needs, wants, and emotions, like anyone else. It frees us from the harmful stereotypes we routinely face and demonstrates that we are equal to other people. It sends a message that we deserve to be treated with a baseline of respect.
There are so many things that people can do to celebrate Autism Acceptance Month. They can parse through the #ActuallyAutistic tag on Twitter, which centers autistic voices. They can educate themselves on pertinent autism issues through pro-autism sources such as Lydia X. Z. Brown’s website or Neuroclastic. They can donate to the Autistic People of Color Fund. They can host events that celebrate the autism community. If non-autistic people take the time to learn about the autism community and spread the word about it, the world can become a better place for the autism community to thrive.