This April we celebrated Autism Acceptance Month. Individuals with autism are diverse and unique, and need to be treated as such. While the Autism Society of America used to call the month Autism Awareness Month, they have realized that “awareness” isn’t enough. “The Autism Society understands the importance of fostering acceptance to ignite change through improved support and opportunities in education, employment, accessible housing, affordable health care and comprehensive long-term services and supports.” The Autism Society of America recognizes that the label of autism can put people at a disadvantage because it could alter how others view them, which can lead to being excluded and discriminated against. This is clearly an issue that needs to be addressed.
It can be difficult to understand autism because the diagnosis is very wide and encompasses a broad range of behaviors and abilities. The diagnostic criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder was last updated by American Psychiatric Association in 2013. It includes impairment in social communication and interactions AND restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities, with a range of the level of severity for each of these two categories. Autistic individuals could have the ability to speak in complete sentences but have difficulty properly picking up on and properly responding to social cues and understanding the nuances of a conversation, or they could be completely nonverbal and have great difficulty in communicating with others. They could struggle with changes and transitions, or they could exhibit such severe inflexibility or restrictive/repetitive behaviors that they are unable to function. While Autism Spectrum Disorder is a broad umbrella term that incorporates many previously separate diagnoses (Autistic disorder, Asperger syndrome, Childhood disintegrative disorder, and Pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified), each individual diagnosed with ASD is unique. Although the categories of their impairments are the same, what it means for each individual varies greatly. They could also have other medical conditions associated with ASD. There is no one size fits all description that can fully explain what it means to be autistic.
Since autism can encompass such a wide range of behaviors, people can have a preconceived opinion about how autistic people should look, behave, or act. This narrow, stereotyped view of autism can prevent us from seeing an individual’s true potential. The stigma of Autism Spectrum Disorder can prevent families from getting a diagnosis or treatment, or from seeking support from others. It can be very isolating. Some people with autism feel that they need to hide who they really are in order to avoid the associated stigma.
The transition from awareness to acceptance is needed to help overcome the stigma associated with the word autism. Autistic individuals and their families need support, not judgement. The problem is not autism but a lack of compassion from others. Instead of expecting individuals on the spectrum to conform to our standards, we need to change how we approach them. All people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. We can have a positive impact by being more mindful in how we interact with autistic individuals.
Educating ourselves and our society on all the faces of autism is needed to overcome ignorance and discrimination. This can be done by not only learning about autism, but by learning from those who are living with it. The stories of individuals with autism can teach us much about what they experience in their everyday lives. Autistic people and their loved ones can face many challenges as they work to achieve understanding and equality. And while we cannot generalize their experiences to those of every other autistic person, it can help us to see the struggles that they face due to a lack of acceptance.
As a society, we need to accept others who are different from us, no matter what the difference. We need to recognize our individual differences, or how one group is different from another, such as gender identity, socioeconomic status, race, religion, sexual orientation, abilities, or mental health status. Although awareness is meant to be positive, it is not enough because it can still include judgement and discrimination. But by accepting those who are different for who they are, we recognize that they still have value and they deserve to be treated with respect.