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Why I Want This April to Be Autism Understanding Month

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The arrival of April ushers in the annual celebration of Autism Awareness Month, with its barrage of social media posts and memes, reminding us to all be “aware” of autism. But what does that actually mean? Aren’t we already aware of autism? And then there are the Autism Acceptance messages, telling us it’s not enough to be aware of autism, we need to be accepting of it.

That’s a great message, but I wonder how many people really know what it means to accept autism? How can someone accept something they have little to no understanding of? In my opinion, the most important message is one of Autism Understanding. Only with understanding can true acceptance occur.

Autistic people are a diverse group of individuals. Because autism is a spectrum condition, no two autistic people are the same. We may not fit your preconceived notion of autism. We may be the non-verbal child that lives next door, or the socially awkward guy we run into at the supermarket who cannot make eye contact. Those are the presentations of autism that may be familiar to many people. However, we are also the shy, brilliant kid in your class who has no friends, the female executive who appears to have it all together at work but can’t keep her house clean or pay her bills on time, or the therapist who gives brilliant advice but struggles to get out of bed or leave the house. We can appear to be fine (“there’s nothing wrong with you”), but we may need to use every available ounce of our energy to appear “normal” to the outside world. Upon returning home from school or work, we may need hours or even days of solitude to regroup and recharge.

We are short, tall, straight, LGBTQIA, atheist, religious, liberal and conservative. We each have our own interests and opinions, and we have no special “look” about us (“but you don’t look autistic”). We are just as diverse and varied as folks in the neurotypical population.

Many of us crave social connection, but don’t have the skills to facilitate it, and when we do accomplish friendships we frequently don’t have the energy to maintain them (or our friends “dump” us for no apparent reason). The mere thought of attending social functions can strike fear in our hearts, and even something as simple as having to make or answer a phone call can send us into a state of panic.

For many of us on the spectrum, anxiety is our baseline state. Driving a car on the highway or driving at all may be out of the question, although many of us enjoy driving. Phobias are common and can greatly limit our daily functioning. Our highly sensitive nervous systems make us very vulnerable to developing serious anxiety disorders and clinical depression. We are often the victims of narcissistic abuse and lifelong bullying, resulting in severe psychological damage and conditions such as C-PTSD. Many of us are gullible and trusting when it is not in our best interest.

For all of our challenges, we may also possess great strengths. We can be great artists and writers, great mathematicians or scientists, and we may be experts on a single, narrow topic due to our hyperfocus abilities. Of course, not all of us excel at these things because again, autism is a spectrum! We may possess a heightened sense of justice which can make us leaders in social justice causes, and quite of few of us have a very deep connection with the natural world, with animals especially, and we may be advocates for animal causes and environmental issues. A profound sense of loyalty can make us dedicated employees and devoted friends.

In my interactions with other autistic people, I rarely find an individual who would like to be “rid of” their autism. It is an intrinsic part of who we are.

So how does one begin to truly understand autism? By simply listening to autistic people. While neurotypical “experts” and professionals do have their place, it is only by listening to the voices of autistic adults that one can achieve true understanding. And that is the first step to Autism Acceptance. Happy Autism Acceptance – and Understanding – month!

Getty image by Photllrg.

Originally published: April 3, 2018
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