Autism Awareness or Acceptance? Why We Should Shift Our Language



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Each year, April 1 marks the start of International Autism Awareness Month. Mayors in many cities around the world raise a symbolic flag, and awareness campaigns are often launched on World Autism Awareness Day, April 2. But autism advocacy groups are calling on the public and media outlets to use a different word instead of awareness: acceptance. The idea is that this shift would push the general public to be even more inclusive of people on the autism spectrum.

Words Matter

Since the early 1970s, autism groups around the world have worked hard to educate schools and workplaces about the signs, symptoms and facts of autism. And while this has been largely successful, the autistic population is still extremely marginalized: Many are under-employed, suffer from depression and often live in poverty. General public “awareness” has had a limited tangible impact on the lives of people living with autism and may have even led to some of the negative stereotypes. A deliberate rebranding, however, aims to achieve specific goals like the following:

  • increased employment opportunities for adults on the autism spectrum
  • more positive, empowered and diverse portrayals of autism in media and entertainment
  • next-level inclusive classrooms, especially in secondary and post-secondary schools

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) started calling April Autism Acceptance Month in 2011, explaining that, “Acceptance of autism as a natural condition in the human experience is necessary for real dialogue to occur.”

Facts to Feelings

At three years of age, Avi was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). He communicated mostly in three-word phrases and had an extremely active and creative imagination that kept him focused on acting out and repeating animated movies and children’s songs he had memorized. He struggled to socialize with his peers. Several years ago, I facilitated his transition into school in my role as Director of the Integrative Multi-Treatment Intervention (IMTI) program. To prepare his peers, the teacher read a storybook to his grade one class about autism. Autism occurs in 1:54 children, more in boys than girls, and the incidents have been steadily climbing over the past two decades. The children learned facts about autism, and while they became more aware of Avi’s communication challenges, ultimately he wasn’t fully accepted. Even after the story, his peers didn’t always find ways to include him in play and they often felt uncomfortable with his unusual hand-flapping behaviour. We learned that we needed to add a discussion after the storybook about the students’ feelings and beliefs.  The discussion needs to shift from awareness to acceptance—from facts to real-life meaningful relationships and opportunities. The inverse of The Autistic Self Advocacy Network’s statement is also true: Real dialogue in which we can be honest about our judgments and questions is necessary for acceptance to occur.

Take Action

Here are three actions you can take to shift your community from awareness to autism acceptance:

  • Speak with your employer or HR department about starting a ‘hiring from the spectrum’ initiative. Stream an episode of AMI TV’s award-winning reality series Employable Me to get inspired (and to see what’s possible!).  I helped launch Autism Speaks Canada’s AS2YP, which is a good resource, and organizations like Specialisterne and Canadian-based Focus Professional Services provide employer training and on-the-job support.
  • Reach out to a neighbour, a work colleague or a family member you know with an autistic child and invite them to participate in a community or social event. Be the bridge to inclusion—ask them what accommodations you could make for their child to feel welcome and easily included. Take time to really get to know this child and their family.
  • Make a donation to a local or national autism organization. From Autism Calgary and Autism Canada to Vancouver’s Pacific Autism Family Network, there are thousands of dedicated volunteers and professionals who work tirelessly to advocate for more acceptance and inclusion. Your donation is sure to make a positive impact.

Jonathan Alderson is founder and director of the Integrative Multi-Treatment Intervention (IMTI.ca) Program. He designs customized treatment programs for children with autism as well as professional training and seminars. With a Masters from Harvard University and over 1500 hours of 1:1 teaching experience, he trained at the Autism Treatment Center of America in Massachusetts and now has developed a comprehensive individualized method that combines a range of therapies into comprehensive programs. He is the author of Challenging the Myths of Autism, winner of seven awards including the International Book Award for best parent resource.

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