The previous post in this series, “Functioning Labels 101: What’s The Big Deal?” can be found here. Once I’ve established that I actually will write a regular series of these posts and not just abandon the idea, I’ll create a tag.
Today, 2nd April, is the UN’s annual World Autism Awareness Day; by extension, the whole of April is Autism Awareness Month – or, as you may have heard it being called by autistic activists and our allies, Autism Acceptance Month. You may also have noticed that many autistic people have reacted against certain “Autism Awareness” campaigns. So, what are the problems with Autism Awareness Month as it currently stands? Why “acceptance”? What can you do this April to help autistic people in a meaningful way? Welcome to Autism Acceptance 101.
Surely more autism awareness can only be a good thing?
Not if the only things being brought to public awareness are misinformation, stereotypes, and fear. Many autism awareness campaigns and events, notably the popular Light It Up Blue, are run by Autism Speaks, a hate group that sees autism as a tragic epidemic that takes away the “real” (read: neurotypical) children, and carry out research to eradicate us. Here is a well-known masterpost by Tumblr’s Goldenheartedrose outlining the ways in which Autism Speaks harms autistic people. There are many. Yet Autism Speaks continues to be the most popular autism organisation in the USA if not the world, which means April often serves only as extra amplification for their hatred, sometimes dreaded by autistic people ourselves.
But the criticism of autism awareness campaigns isn’t just limited to Autism Speaks – why is that?
Basically, April amplifies the autism campaigns and narratives that happen normally – the good and the bad. Things to avoid include cure-based rhetoric, equating “autism” to “a burden placed on neurotypical people who are forced to deal with autistic people”, harmful compliance-based therapies, functioning labels, that sort of thing. There’s also the issue that many autism awareness campaigns focus exclusively on children, or more specifically on young white boys, alienating everybody else. Finally, consider accessibility; if your autism awareness event passively excludes autistic people by not taking into account issues like sensory differences, we’re going to wonder who it really benefits.
Why is your immediate reaction to the innocuous “like and share for autism awareness” Facebook pictures just eye-rolling?
Here I’m referring to the picture memes which contain no actual information whatsoever, just “like and share for autism awareness” or “like and share if you know/love someone with autism” (because everyone knows there are no actual autistic people on Facebook… /sarcasm). They seem pretty harmless – at least they’re not spreading misinformation. But the former is basically “hey everyone, autism exists!” which doesn’t solve anything if the majority of information immediately available to those who see it and want to know more is Autism Speaks or similar, and the latter is basically “look everyone, I know one of these people, I’m so great!” which just feeds into the “burden on neurotypicals who have to deal with us” narrative. Mainly, this sort of thing (with no additional information around it) is just self-congratulatory neurotypicals who click “like” and “share” and then expect an ally cookie whilst they then go about the rest of their day participating in the ableist world without a second thought.
Why “acceptance”? What’s the difference?
In recent years, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and other autistic-led organisations have set up Autism Acceptance Month in order to directly combat the harmful “awareness” campaigns. This includes events designed to specifically counter Light It Up Blue, such as the #WalkInRed campaign. These campaigns use “Autism Acceptance” to signify that they do not view autism as a tragic burden to be eradicated, but a neurotype and a group of people who want to be accepted for who we are, as opposed to “awareness” which has so often just been amplified misinformation. It’s a way of explicitly distancing these campaigns from the “awareness” brand which many autistic people are now wary of.
But how can people accept something if they’re not even aware of it yet?
Probably more easily than accepting something if they’ve already developed strong but false beliefs about it, to be honest.
So should I reject everything with the “awareness” label?
Not necessarily – many autistic people and allies (often in addition to supporting autism acceptance campaigns) are preferring to reclaim autism awareness, especially by dispelling myths and misconceptions and spreading acceptance guides via autism awareness hashtags on Twitter, so that they’re seen by the wider audience “autism awareness” brings. In particular, I want to draw your attention to Quarridors‘ tweets today under #WAAD2015, providing some simple but important ways to make the world more accessible to autistic people.
What can I do this April to actually help autistic people?
- Listen to us! We exist, we can communicate for ourselves (in whatever form that takes) and many of us are happy to answer questions and dispel myths.
- Take the time to educate yourself on autism through actually autistic people – some really good places to start are Amythest Schaber’s “Ask an Autistic” video series, blogs such as Musings Of An Aspie, Emma’s Hope Book, Autistic Hoya, Unstrange Mind and Just Stimming (this is a really tiny list and I feel like I’ve missed loads of people, so please recommend more and/or promote yourselves in the comments!) and the resources on the Autism Acceptance Month website.
- Support autistic-led organisations such as ASAN or Autism Women’s Network, or other self-advocacy organisations local to you. In particular, Aromaleigh Cosmetics is donating 50% of the sales of “Enigma” eyeshadow to ASAN.
- Have a read through ASAN’s #AcceptanceIs hashtag (another great way of finding more autistic voices to listen to!)
- Support the Walk In Red campaign and other campaigns directly combating Autism Speaks’ dominant hateful narrative
- Educate others, particularly on the problems with Autism Speaks as they are supported by a LOT of well-meaning people, including high-profile celebrities and companies, that aren’t aware of the harm they’re causing.