This Autism Awareness Month, Please Listen to Autistic People
April is Autism Awareness Month. Or as most actually autistic people want to call it, Autism Acceptance Month, or Autism Pride Month. Autism “awareness” was created by Autism Speaks, an organization which autistic people generally consider to be unhelpful for us. Autism Speaks does not speak for the vast majority of autistic people.
We don’t need awareness, especially when people who claim to spread awareness will do it by propagating harmful stereotypes of autistic people as violent and volatile. We need people to accept us for who we are.
Here is the most important thing that allistic (non-autistic) people can do this month: listen to autistic people. Center the voices of autistic people in discussions this month. Please stop speaking over us and believing you know more about us than we do. Even if you have an autistic child or relative, you don’t know what it’s like inside an autistic person’s brain. The only people who can provide that knowledge and experience are fellow autistic people.
Listen to autistic people when we say the vast majority of us prefer identity-first language –“autistic person” instead of “person with autism.” But if someone with autism says they prefer person-first language, listen and respect that too.
Listen to autistic people when we say that ABA therapy has been at best harmful and at the worst traumatic for us. ABA often forces autistic people to eliminate self-soothing behaviors. Even though ABA might make us look neurotypical, it can cause us severe distress to mask, to feign being non-autistic for a period of time. Masking often drains our energy and worsens our mental health.
Listen to autistic people when say that functioning labels are harmful. The autism spectrum isn’t a line; it’s like a color wheel. All autistic people have strengths and weaknesses, and struggle and excel in different ways. Laura Tisoncik, an advocate for autistic people, says that, “The difference between high-functioning and low-functioning autism is that high-functioning means your deficits are ignored, and low-functioning means your assets are ignored.”
Listen to autistic people when we tell you that puzzle pieces don’t represent us. Puzzle pieces imply that autistic people are a puzzle — confusing and hard to understand. We’re not. We just have trouble making our voices heard.
Listen to autistic people when we denounce harmful stereotypes. Autistic people are not a monolith. We’re not all robots with low empathy — many autistic people actually have hyper-empathy. We’re not all “Rain Man”-esque savants, math whizzes and computer geeks. Some of us excel in writing.
Listen to autistic adults and their stories, because we exist. Autistic adults have been through school, university and job-hunting, and we have a range of experiences to share, from supportive experiences to traumatic ones. Let us tell our stories.
Please consider looking to organizations like the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) for resources this month. Call for autism acceptance, not awareness. And listen to us, because we have a lot to say.
Getty image by Pinana Treeangle.