Yesterday (April 2nd) was “Autism Awareness Day,” and the entire month of April is dubbed “Autism Awareness Month.” (April is also Distracted Driving Awareness Month, National Canine Fitness Month, and National Fresh Celery Month, among many others – just in case you were wondering.) April is the one month of the year where people who wouldn’t ordinarily care about autism can make some sort of token gesture to make other people aware that there is something called autism. Yes, this day/month makes me even more cynical than usual.
Awareness. That’s setting the bar really low. In fact, I think most people are generally aware of autism. Awareness does not necessarily accomplish much. As many autistic people are quick to point out, awareness doesn’t really do anything to help us. In fact, I would argue, prioritizing particular narratives pathologizes autism, and creates pity and fear. Often Autism Awareness is paired with a statistic about the increasing prevalence (which can largely be explained by better screening and broader diagnostic criteria). Autism Awareness is aimed at parents and caregivers of autistic/potentially autistic children.
For those of us who are actually autistic, this Autism Awareness, characterized by Autism Speak’s Light It Up Blue campaign, accomplishes nothing positive. I recall a few years ago when the campus chapter of Autism Speaks put a light blue puzzle piece t-shirt on a large statue of our school mascot. At the same time, I was struggling with professors not respecting my academic accommodations and a lack of support in general. As I walked past that statue daily, I quickly grasped that Autism Awareness meant nothing in practical terms.
Though I would personally be happy to skip this month all together, many autistic people work to reframe it as Autism Acceptance Month. Acceptance focuses on inclusion and understanding, not increasing visibility. I absolutely support autism acceptance. Acceptance, or a lack thereof, is something that myself and others grapple with for the entire year, not just a month.
Focusing on autism acceptance is one way to move past the damaging awareness narratives. But there is something around awareness that I would like to do, because I think many people still need a deeper autism knowledge. I decided that for the remainder of this month I will write about some of the issues related to autism that I wish people were more aware of. This is a method of awareness-raising that centers autistic ideas and needs and creates the potential for positive change in lived autistic experiences. Sounds good to me.