By Shadia Hancock
As many of you may know, this April is Autism Awareness Month. Whilst it is wonderful that we have a month dedicated to raising awareness of Autism, Autistic advocates have highlighted the need to move beyond awareness to acceptance.
This is why some people are referring to April as Autism Acceptance Month as opposed to Autism Awareness Month. This is a great opportunity for us as a community to come together and celebrate Autism, and transform awareness to acceptance.
So, what is Autism Awareness?
According to the Oxford Dictionary, awareness is “Knowledge or perception of a situation or fact.” Whilst awareness can be a positive step towards understanding, it is a passive process. Awareness does not necessarily imply acceptance.
Whilst many are aware of Autism, they may not know how to discuss Autism or help Autistic individuals to contribute to our community. They may not know how to embrace their strengths. For example, there is a big difference between being aware that there is an Autistic person in your class or workplace, and accepting them and actively striving to include the Autistic individual and incorporate their needs.
Another thought… we may be aware that lots of workplace environments are not inclusive for Autistic individuals, but are employers changing their environments in response to this? Do they know how to? And how much discussion are we having as a society around these issues?
Why is Autism Acceptance important?
According to the Oxford Dictionary, acceptance is “The action of consenting to receive or undertake something offered.”
Unlike awareness, acceptance is an active process. It requires reflections that lead to actions and changes in our society. So I would like to refer to April as Autism Acceptance Month. We have already achieved awareness to a great extent – what we need is acceptance that will lead to more opportunities and less negativity and stigma around Autism and Neurodiversity in general.
Acceptance can lead to inclusion, and can help us feel truly valued in society. It is our fundamental right as human beings to be allowed the same opportunities and considerations as fellow humans around us.
And guess what… there are many advocates out there more than willing to assist the community through this process! Some questions I would urge you to ask to encourage positive reflections is “What can we do to enable Autistic individuals?”, “Where can I go for advice on Autism?” “What can we change to make our world more inclusive?”, and importantly “How can we Help?” Autistic individuals are an integral part of this process… after all, there is nothing about us without us.
What can we do during April for Autism Acceptance?
Support Autistic voices. We all have unique insights to share about our experiences being on the Autism Spectrum and we come from all walks of life. Listen and be actively engaged to our stories – we have a lot to say!
I would urge you to be strong allies of the Neurodiversity movement and choose to promote the infinity symbol over the puzzle piece. Most Autistic advocates (including myself) consider the puzzle piece symbolising Autism to be outdated – a lot of us do not believe we are missing pieces or a mystery to be solved. Other more positive symbols such as the infinity symbol representing Neurodiversity reinforces the idea of Autism being a spectrum, and each individual having unique, different, abilities. It provides a message of hope and acceptance as opposed to being viewed as something we need to figure out or fix.
Autistic individuals have a wealth of knowledge due to their personal experiences – we know how it feels to be Autistic. This is why I support Autistic-led organisations such as the I CAN Network. You can too, by donating to their causes and promoting their initiatives, or starting discussions with your friends and family.
Try to stay positive and share viewpoints that will lift us up, not bring us down. So many Autistics have felt burnt and depressed due to some of the negativity that can circulate during April so, a good idea could be to hold a movie night to educate people on Autism. As an organisation, you could pledge to learn more about Autism and provide job opportunities for Autistics, similar to the DXC Dandelion Program which focusses on the strengths and skillsets of Autistic individuals.
You could get Autistic speakers to inform your organisation on Autism and talk to staff, parents, students, and other Autistic individuals. There are some fabulous speakers from the I CAN Network Speakers Agency, including Daniel Giles, Penny Robinson, Chris Varney, Wenn Lawson, and many more.
I believe there is still much work to do on how Autism is portrayed in the media, however I have found some great depictions of Autism. Whilst they are not perfect, I do relate to the portrayals in the following:
- Pablo: Pablo follows the adventures of Pablo, an Autistic five year old, with his imaginary animal friends. Pablo is wonderful as Autistic characters star in this series and are played and written by Autistic actors.
- Temple Grandin: Illustrates the life of the famous Autistic advocate. Temple Grandin shows some of her experiences working in the cattle industry and how she defied expectations by tapping into her strengths and passions.
- Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (CW: Use of ‘Asperger’s Disease’ term): I personally related to many of the protagonist’s struggles from a sensory point of view. It is an intense film, so be prepared to have the tissues nearby, but it does delve a little into the complex minds of Autistic individuals, and how we deal with grief and the generally busy world around us.
- The Lighthouse of the Orcas: Based on a true story. A pod of wild orcas form an incredible connection with an Autistic boy in Patagonia with the support of his mother and a ranger. A truly moving story that shows not to judge a book by its cover as there is often a lot that is happening under the surface.
- Mary and Max: A heart-wrenching tale of friendship between pen pals Mary and Max. Mary is a lonely eight-year-old girl living in Melbourne and Max is an Autistic 44 year old living in New York. Still have some tissues left over? You’ll need them!
- The Horse Boy: An amazing documented journey of a family who travelled to Mongolia after they witnessed their son sharing a special connection with horses. Rowan opened up around the horses, and after his parents started listening to how he interacted with animals and shamans, they took him on a trek to Mongolia to spend more time with them. Horses helped not only Rowan, but his parents in finding different ways of communicating with each other. Demonstrates the importance of believing in the individual and listening to what they need.
- X + Y: Film based on an Autistic mathematic prodigy Daniel Lightwing that demonstrates the power of positive mentors that see and nurture our potential. Mathematics prodigy Nathan finds comfort in numbers, and is invited to represent the United Kingdom at the International Mathematical Olympiad. There he encounters unexpected challenges, such as learning to express feelings of love.
- The Unexpected Journey/Miracle Run: A story of a single mother and twin sons, both Autistic. Refusing to give up on their potential, single mother Corrine helps enable the boys to follow their passions and achieve great things.
- What’s Eating Gilbert Grape: Follows the story of Gilbert, who cares for his brother Arnie who seems to be Autistic, and his obese mother. For its time, I believe this was quite a good depiction of Autism, the complexities that come with family, and the beauty of love and acceptance.
- Edward Scissorhands: Even though the film doesn’t confirm the character Edward is Autistic, the director Tim Burton is self-diagnosed as Autistic. This film is considered one of Burton’s most personal works. The character Edward was created by a skilled inventor who died before he could finish Edward’s hands. Instead of hands, Edward had scissors. The film shows his incredible abilities to sculpt and some of the social challenges he faces, stressing the importance of recognising different abilities.
I hope you enjoy learning more about Autism this April. There will be many Autistic advocates active in this space that are so excited to share their experiences and advice with you. We are lucky to live in an era where we can more easily connect with one another – make sure to follow Autistic-led spaces and look out for events occurring in your local area. And if there are none, create your own!!
This is a chance for us to rewrite some negative stereotypes about Autism and better inform others of what being Autistic means for those on the spectrum. Who knows where this could lead… perhaps more inclusion, more consideration in the media, or opening up spaces for us to have positive discussions on how we together as a community can help create change for the better. I look forward to seeing what April brings.