April 2 was World Autism Awareness Day. I’m sure that all of you who haven’t been living under a rock are aware that autism exists. Many autistic advocates are rebranding April as Autism Acceptance Month, which is a much-needed change. Autism awareness without understanding or meaningful action leads to pity and negativity, rather than real support for autistic people. Too often, autism is depicted as a disease like cancer that ruins lives, costs too much money, or requires your donations or blue light bulbs for a “cure.” This kind of awareness stigmatizes people like W, creating a society where it will be harder for him to find a job, form relationships, develop healthy self-esteem, and otherwise make his way in the world. W doesn’t need to grow up hearing that he’s broken and in need of repair. He doesn’t need to be cured. He needs support, love, and acceptance for the amazing autistic person he is.
It’s hard enough to struggle in many ways with a disability, but it’s infinitely worse to do so and be characterized as a burden or a tragedy. So the first, and most important, step in autism acceptance is to treat autistic people with dignity and respect. My kid and people like him may do things that seem weird or different or incomprehensible. They will likely communicate in unfamiliar ways. Sometimes they will need more help to do things that come easily to the rest of us. Sometimes the things they are really good at will seem out of the ordinary. Sometimes they won’t want to do things like the rest of us. Acceptance means that these differences aren’t signs of brokenness; they are worthy of respect and understanding. I don’t want W to fit some narrow definition of “normal.” I want W to be the best autistic person he can be, in a world that doesn’t see him as defective.
So what does acceptance look like? Autism awareness means you can read a Facebook post and consider your work done. Acceptance calls for meaningful action. It is hard work to be autistic in a world designed by the non-autistic majority. Part of building a world with a place for my kid and others like him means that it takes creativity, planning, changes, and accommodations for autistic people to be included in schools, communities, churches, families, workplaces, and public places. It means embracing people who are different, listening to and trying to understand autistic perspectives, and making real efforts to identify and change the barriers that so often exclude autistic people from participating in public life.
Acceptance means recognizing that people who need support do not need pity. It means that people who struggle and need help still live worthy lives. It means that there is more than one definition of success in life. Happy April, everyone.