You might have noticed that April has rolled around again and with it, the usual social media chatter. If you’ve been looking, you might have noticed the terrible April Fools pranks, or the understandable craving for some chocolate eggs at Easter. Another important occurrence this month is that of Autism Awareness Month (although considering recent comments by right-wing hacks on Greta Thunberg’s “monotone voice” and hoping she has a “meltdown” on TV, perhaps some are totally unaware). Autism Awareness Month is notable mainly because the same tired clichés are rolled out, year upon year.
“My son has autism and he’s amazing”; “Autism is not a disability, look at what this person can do!” etc, etc. This, and similar lines, are said out of genuinely good intentions, but are ultimately patronising and do not reflect the wide experience of those on the spectrum. Autistic people are not “amazing”; we are fundamentally human beings like anyone else, not some angelic creation designed to put a smile on the face of passers-by. “Disability” should not be avoided as if it were a bad word - not only is it demeaning to those who consider themselves disabled, the reality is there are many on the autistic spectrum who simply cannot do the same things as their neurotypical counterparts. The comments about autistic people (and others considered disabled) being “amazing” or “inspirational” only serves to single them out as different to others, and therefore unnatural.
On the contrary, neurodiversity should be embraced as normality. Not all those behind Autism Awareness Month and other similar campaigns seem willing to embrace it, however. One example of this is Autism Speaks, one of the most prominent autism advocacy organisations. They run the “Light It Up Blue” campaign for World Autism Awareness Day on April 2, encouraging people to wear blue in order to increase awareness of autism. While the idea that wearing certain coloured clothing and posting a hashtag will actually improve the lives of autistic people is highly questionable, this is before you even take into consideration the practices of Autism Speaks themselves. Despite being an autism “advocacy” organisation, Autism Speaks has merged with research organisations who seek to cure autism, such as Cure Autism Now and, until 2016, their mission statement included that they are seeking a cure. Despite their name, most of their board members are not on the spectrum, meaning autism cannot actually “speak” and autistic people are excluded from important conversations about themselves. Most of the budget of Autism Speaks goes toward research and fundraising, rather than providing actual support for autistic people.
Autistic people are not suffering from some disease that needs curing. Autism is an inherent part of who we are. The dangerous rhetoric around finding a cure and promoting research over support only demeans and dehumanises autistic people, rather than helping them. Despite promoting autism awareness, organisations like Autism Speaks seem to lack it. That is why it is time to move on from those organisations, and the traditional Autism Awareness Month, onto a new model that actively embraces autistic people and their autism.
Awareness does not necessarily imply acceptance. That is why there has been a campaign, initially started by Paula Durbin Westby in 2011, of Autism Acceptance Month. This avoids the wrong ideals promoted by Autism Speaks, instead understanding that autism is just a variation of the human experience and that accepting neurodiversity should be the goal of any campaign. It has been backed by organisations such as the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, who have autistic people at the heart of their operations. Rather than “awareness” of their lives being discussed and debated without them, there are now groups and campaigns which allow the real needs of autistic people to be met.
This April, I urge you to not just blindly support whatever autism awareness campaign you see and share things on social media without thinking. While you may be trying to do a good thing, there are some organisations who actually harm the people they claim to care about - it is that we also need to be aware of. Instead, actively seek out and listen to the voices of autistic people, and give them a greater platform, rather than Autism Speaks and other groups like it. It is time for more than awareness - it is time for acceptance.