How to Support Autism Awareness and Acceptance
While Autism Acceptance Month is April, promoting awareness, acceptance, and advocacy shouldn’t be limited to a 30-day period! There are steps we can take all year long to learn how to support autism awareness and acceptance and become the best possible allies for the autistic community.
If you are seeking to learn how to increase awareness of and support for the autistic community, I always recommend learning directly from members of that community whenever possible. As just one example, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) provides an excellent resource library, and most recently published Foundations for Inclusive Advocacy. There are also many talking points provided here, for conversations with governmental representatives or speaking out on social media.
With that being said, I appreciate you ending up here at Waypoints to read more about this topic! One of our core values is that we are explicitly supportive of neurodiversity and focused on individualized changes to the environment to help support learning. As a neurotypical ally, I would like to share in this post what I’ve learned regarding autism acceptance on my journey so far.
Benefits of Acceptance and Advocacy
Why is autism awareness and acceptance so important in the first place? This is not simply an issue of making autistic people feel better in an abstract sense. As the ASAN states, the goal of real activism should be to help ensure “access to health care, education, and employment.” This can also extend to access to accommodating social events and recreational activities, as well as active care and support from neurotypical family and friends.
An excellent article from 2016, Autism and Normalization, also makes the point that “anything short of full acceptance is a kind of othering, and always dehumanizing to some extent. Usually, for something to be accepted, it needs to be seen as within the bounds of normality.” This does not mean that autistic people must act “normal” in order to be accepted. Quite the opposite – society’s definition of “normal” must expand to accommodate the true diversity of human life! Taking action to help accomplish that lofty goal can help reduce the dehumanization that autistic people experience.
I wrote in a post earlier this year that “autism and neurodiversity should be accepted and celebrated, and this goal can be achieved through increased awareness and education by the neurodiverse community directly.” However, self-advocacy and education efforts on the part of members of the autistic community can be exhausting. To ease this burden and take the initiative, neurotypical people can seek out already-available educational resources and take action themselves.
One way to support autism awareness and acceptance, and the neurodiversity movement in general, is to be mindful of word choices when talking about autism. While language alone isn’t enough, it can be a huge step toward examining and changing our own ableist biases, and also help to prevent microaggressions.
This recent New York Times guest essay offers an engaging perspective on how and why to interrogate the language we use in everyday life. In it, the author shares how “[b]eing unafraid to ask the question — ‘Is that ableist?’ — is a crucial step in unraveling our society’s entrenched biases and discrimination against disabled people, who make up about 20 percent of the U.S. population.”
Additional considerations and resources related to the importance of language in the context of supporting the autistic community include:
- In this blog post, I reviewed a few different terms related to neurodiversity – it is a good starting point for reviewing the differences between neurodiversity and neurodivergence, and when those terms can be most appropriately used.
- Avoid language related to the medical model of disability – in another post, I discussed why we at Waypoints don’t refer to anything related to “curing” autism, and yet another covers our perspective on ABA as a tool to help support autistic clients, not a therapy. Similarly, we do not proclaim to intervene upon “maladaptive” or “problem” behavior. All behavior is adaptive in some way to the person engaging in it, or else it wouldn’t be happening. Calling behavior a “problem” begs the question of who it’s a problem for. Instead, we might reference “challenging” behavior that clients wish to change for themselves, which could entail things like habit reduction or learning and improving new skills.
- Person-first vs. identity-first language – Julia Bascom wrote an excellent blog post explaining what has become the autistic community’s clearly stated preference for identity-first language. In other words, it is typically preferred to refer to someone as an “autistic person” rather than “a person with autism.” Saying “autistic person” acknowledges autism as a part of that person’s identity, without the connotation of it being something to be minimized or eliminated. Of course, people have different preferences that should always be honored, so be sure to take an individual’s feedback regarding how they personally would like to be referred to!
- Avoid “guardrailing” – this is less about specific words and phrases, and more about how we speak to and about autistic individuals (and other disabled people in general). Guardrailing is “the phenomenon that occurs when non-disabled people give more rules, supervision, guidance, direction, and oversight to disabled people.” This can be insulting and infantilizing, and can also prevent independence and freedom of choice.
Advocating for Accommodations
Another great active step is to make environments as accommodating as possible, whenever you have the power to do so! Even if you can’t make needed changes directly, speaking up to ask about and request accommodations is often an incredibly valuable contribution. Someone who actively needs those accommodations but doesn’t see them offered may simply decide not to go to a particular location or attend an event rather than “making a fuss,” especially if their efforts have been punished or ignored in the past.
In this recent article, autistic adults requesting workplace adjustments in the UK reported that they “felt the onus fell on them to (1) identify their need for adjustments; (2) establish the specific adjustments that would be beneficial and (3) request adjustments from their employer. Yet, they reported struggling with this process.” An ally who has the energy and ability to speak up and enact change can offer a lot of relief. Here are a few things that you could keep an eye out for, and ask location/event managers to actively advertise or provide in the first place:
- Access to helpful tools or permission to bring and use one’s own tools, such as noise-cancelling headphones, a comfortable seat insert, software with accessibility features, or communication devices
- Ability for remote attendance, and/or attendance at days or times that allow for avoidance of rush hour driving, fewer crowds, or less noise
- Flexibility with dress codes such that uncomfortable or restrictive clothing isn’t required
- Subtitles or speech-to-text captioning and/or a note-taker at live events
- Support staff who are prepared to communicate in diverse ways, such as through sign language, written notes, picture exchange (e.g., PECS), text-to-speech software, or other communication devices
- “Low sensory” areas with few loud noises or flashing lights, and low unpredictability in general
- Clear written and/or visual aids, such as instructions regarding how to order at a restaurant, directions to bathrooms or quiet areas, or event schedules
You can also seek out volunteering opportunities at agencies that have taken the necessary steps to provide good accommodations, or simply promote them and give them your business! I recently put together a list of such therapeutic services, events, and activities in the Grand Rapids area in this post.
Ally Is a Verb
I bookmarked a quote by Maya Angelou years ago, as a reminder to myself that allyship requires growth and that growth shouldn’t be shied away from. “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” If you haven’t been adjusting your language or taking these actions, THAT’S OK! You took the initiative to learn more about how to support autism awareness and acceptance, and that’s a huge step. There are more steps to take, but that is always the case as long as we continue to learn and grow.
If you would like to learn more about ways to support the autistic community, I encourage you to click through to the links I’ve included in this post, some of which are our own past blog posts but many of which include resources provided autistic people directly. A core principle for any ally should be to listen and defer to the people that we’re meant to be allying with. If you would like any assistance with accessing further resources, or would like to discuss opportunities for advocacy, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Having a support network in place plays an important role in improving and maintaining wellbeing for people of all ages.
Get in Touch With Waypoints
Whether you’re looking for diagnostic testing, one-on-one in-home ABA therapy and skill-building resources, or simply want to learn more about our unique approach, please don’t hesitate to reach out! (We love getting mail.)