The month of April is Autism Awareness Month. It is filled with various autism awareness campaigns, such as “Light It Up Blue” by Autism Speaks, and puzzle piece symbolism. But what does the autistic community themselves think about Autism Awareness Month?
Autism Awareness Month first began as National Autistic Children’s Week in 1972, started by the Autism Society. The goal was to help educate the public and to ensure that autistic people had the highest quality of life possible. Over time, Autism Awareness Month grew in popularity. Many of the most familiar autism campaigns during April have come from Autism Speaks, who created the popular and controversial “Light It Up Blue” campaign in 2010.
Despite the good intentions of allistic people, many autistic people struggle to get through Autism Awareness Month. Although the goal should be uplifting autistic voices and putting our opinions first, much of the “awareness” that takes place does just the opposite. Every time I have opened my Facebook in the past few days, I have been bombarded with Autism Awareness posts that share only the opinions of non-autistic people about autism, the puzzle piece, awareness vs acceptance, organizations, etc.
I think it is easy for people to jump on the “Autism Awareness” bandwagon, to wear some puzzle piece ribbon resembling a cancer ribbon, or to “Light It Up Blue” and promote the problematic notion that only boys are autistic. Actual autism acceptance, something I and many others in the actually autistic community would prefer, is asking a lot more of people.
Despite my proclivity to be blunt, I try very hard to spoon feed allistic people who seem open to learning more about autism, especially parents and those who work with autistic people. Part of the reason for this is that I recognize how difficult it can be to digest the information. Asking people to ditch Autism Speaks, their puzzle pieces, and functioning labels usually requires a deep level of acceptance of one’s own ableism and prejudice. And although it is very important this takes place, it is really, really hard to admit that you were wrong, especially for well-intentioned caregivers.
Regardless of my understanding for the level of difficulty involved in assessing one’s own ableism, I can’t help but feel disheartened by this month. As much as I would love to believe that most people just haven’t had the information presented to them, the truth is that the people whose beliefs I would most like to change, those who work with autistic children, often have heard this information before. They just simply don’t want to listen. In an effort to limit any cognitive dissonance, they tell themselves that I “have no right speaking for other autistic people” or that I’m “too high functioning to have a valid opinion on autism advocacy”.
Admittedly, as an autistic person, it is difficult for me to read through the lines at times. I find myself either having to always assume the best and risk dangerous naivety or always assume the worst and risk alienating myself from others. Especially online, it can be difficult to decipher the alterior motives of allistic people. I sometimes find that what appeared to me as someone trying to learn more was really just someone trying to shoot down the beliefs of the actually autistic community.
And though I have no intention of staying quiet, I have found myself silenced out of exhaustion.
As autistic people, we deserve to have the spotlight this month. We deserve the chance to make decisions for our own marginalized community. And, I say this as an ode to my beautifully blunt autistic nature, any opinion about autism advocacy from a non-autistic person that doesn’t stem from the actually autistic community, is garbage. Throw it out.