Towards Acceptance

Emily Brooks

We want April — Autism Acceptance Month — to matter, to help
further acceptance and understanding of autistic experiences, happiness,
and rights for autistic people of all ages and abilities. We will be
publishing Autism Acceptance posts and pictures all month long. -TPGA

While paging through a local special needs magazine, I paused to scan though a section focusing on autism awareness. It informed me that I should care about autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) because there are so many autistic people that unfortunately it was likely I would meet somebody with autism in the near future if I hadn’t already.

Being on the autism spectrum myself, I wondered why it would be so unfortunate for someone non-autistic, or neurotypical (NT), to meet me. ASD is — according to that special needs magazine, of all places — unfortunate. If this loaded term is part of “autism awareness,” then what exactly has “awareness” come to mean?

Perhaps awareness is about informing the public about this “epidemic,” and about the many people  “battling” or “struggling against” autism. Everywhere I look, the theme of “autism as crisis” keeps popping up. At the bookstore, a fat encyclopedia scares parents into prevention of autism; on the other side of the same shelf, a parent’s memoir details a triumph over autism. Guidebooks discuss pros and cons of pharmaceuticals that can treat symptoms of ASD; autism assistance dog organizations boast that their canines are trained to stop autistic kiddies from stimming, a.k.a. the repetitive movements like hand-flapping and rocking that can help us autistics soothe ourselves. Parents, upon hearing their child’s diagnosis, are professionally advised to grieve the loss of the child they actually wanted — which I presume to mean one without ASD.

So is awareness about knowing the signs of an “epidemic” that requires prevention, has symptoms, should be treated, and causes parents to grieve? That sounds like ASD is a serious medical condition! And searching for a cure implies that autism is a problem. But ASD isn’t a medical issue; rather, it’s a neurological difference.

Awareness is not about the lived experiences of people on the spectrum. If you have any doubts, consider the official symbol of autism awareness, the puzzle piece: the way that the NT world views the ASD one. To NTs, autism is a question mark, a jigsaw puzzle to solve. For decades now, they’ve collected their clues and theories — including refrigerator mothers, mercury, vaccines, medications, androgens in the womb, pollution, gluten, genes, older dads — and they will likely continue to try to piece it together. The larger autism research organizations proudly broadcast their main motivations: research into the causes, prevention, treatment, and cure for ASD.

So why are so many people subscribing to a medical disease-metaphor of ASD that seeks to fix what I believe isn’t broken? Perhaps it’s because of the underlying fear that autistic people are a menace to society, that we are dangerous, violent, and unproductive. Even when those with ASD show no signs of any outward aggression, media misinformation and sensationalism feeds NT fears that autistic people are lacking something fundamentally human, and therefore, that we aren’t really human enough.

Right after the Newtown tragedy, I happened across a forum dehumanizing people on the autism spectrum, symbolically interweaving our brains with the thoughtless lack of compassion of monsters, arguing “they should all die.” Disgusted, I turned away. The repeated falsehood that people with ASD cannot experience empathy leads to another popular falsehood: that we are sociopaths. It’s a pitiful lapse of logic. Just because I am on the autism spectrum doesn’t mean I can’t feel for you — I actually have so much empathy that it hurts. ASD just means I’m worse at reading and interpreting your body language, and awkward at identifying and expressing emotions in social situations. And I can think of heinous crimes committed by non-autistic people, but I don’t generalize or believe that being NT leads people to kill. Autistic people deserve that same respect.

Sadly, the linking of irrational behavior and autism is only strengthening in the public eye. This year, a national autism conference is devoting one session to aggression in ASD; the conference bulletin alludes to recent news and offers practical suggestions. The session description mentions tantrums in the same line as terror, falsely leading the public to believe that meltdowns — the uncontrollable fits that people with ASD experience because of sensory overload, communication frustrations, and anxieties — indicate future aggression. Connecting these two things is just plain irresponsible. It leads an innocent NT world into fearing and further ostracizing people on the spectrum. Maybe they’re afraid of a kid having a meltdown at the grocery store. Or maybe they’re scared of the adult sobbing and rocking on the subway bench, which I confess was me just one week back.

Being on the spectrum is just another way of processing the world. My brain is wired slightly differently, and while that presents me with challenges other people may not face, I like myself the way I am. But does self-acceptance have a place in mainstream awareness rhetoric?

It’s clear that acceptance doesn’t have a place in most awareness campaign shows. Autism “success stories” are usually about passing as normal, not about celebrating difference. One such success story, posted on an autism volunteering site, explained that with the right treatment, kids with ASD can appear to be just like their NT peers. The “optimal” outcome is framed as assimilation into the culture of the neurotypical.

In my world, acceptance trumps assimilation as the optimal outcome. Autism acceptance is about appreciating the spectrum of humanity without using a hierarchical scale that devalues minority thinkers. It’s about putting money toward programs that assist people with ASD in enjoying successful lives, not funneling funds toward a search for a “cure.” And perhaps most importantly, it’s about listening to the real experts on ASD: the people on the autism spectrum.

And so, this April, I challenge you to see ASD not as merely bearable or tolerable, or fixable or preventable, but instead as a gift of neurodiversity that enriches society with new perspectives and creativity. Who says that complexity is a bad thing? I might not meet your eyes and I’ll probably miss your sarcasm and I’ll most definitely flap my hands when I’m telling you something exciting, even as an adult. But maybe you’ll like me for who I am, even though I don’t see things the same way that you do. Maybe you can share with me, share your tools that make this world, which is structured and designed for the NT mind, a little less overwhelming. Through affirming attitudes and supportive programming, let’s cherish this gift and better meet the autism community’s needs. Let’s start seeing each other’s worth in the moment. Let’s gather the courage to finally utter the truth: We are good enough just as we are.