By Stephanie Seabrooke
April is Autism Acceptance Month. Founded in 2011 by members of the autistic community, Autism Acceptance Month focuses on spreading positive information about autism and dispelling common myths that are harmful to autistic people. Autism affects between 1-2% of the U.S. population and is generally defined as a developmental disability affecting language and communication, as well as sensory processing, motor skills, and social interaction. However, it’s important to remember that autism falls under a wide spectrum, and that there’s no such thing as a “typical” autistic person.
While autism acceptance has grown in recent years due to increased activism of the autistic community, people with autism still suffer from the impact of harmful labels and misconceptions that are often directed at them by members of the neurotypical population. While those who have limited experience with autistic people may have good intentions when they support finding a “cure” for autism or promote medication, therapies, or interventions that are designed to diminish common autistic characteristic, most members of the autistic community don’t want their disability viewed as a problem to be solved. Rather, they want to be valued and embraced for who they are. To be a truly effective advocate for people with autism, it helps to keep a few guidelines in mind to make sure you’re supporting them respectfully.
Listen to Autistic People. If you’re neurotypical, be mindful of how you interact with autistic people as you work to advocate for them. While you may be excited to share suggestions and ideas for how to increase autism acceptance in your community, people with autism will always have the best insight into how to change perceptions about their disability. Seek out autistic authors, bloggers, and activists who can offer perspective on what living with autism is like, and make sure you thoroughly research any autism acceptance groups or projects before you join to verify that they’re advocating for autistic people responsibly and ethically.
Support the Goals of Autistic People. While every person with autism is a unique individual with their own hopes, ambitions, and dreams, there are several common objectives that the autism community focuses on when fostering acceptance of their disability. They include at home instead of institutional care when possible for people with autism, normalizing non-verbal language implements such as signing and electronic devices that make it easier for some autistic people to communicate, and battling the pervasive stigma of autistic people as victims who are “suffering” from their disability instead of living full, meaningful lives. By committing to work towards these goals alongside autistic people, you can be a more effective advocate.
Help Autistic People Feel Comfortable. As an ally for the autistic community, you should strive to help people with autism feel as safe and secure as possible in a world that often isn’t sensitive to their needs. Teach yourself to recognize common triggers that can be overwhelming to an autistic person, such as a change in routine or too much sensory stimulation, and intervene before they become stressed. Many autistic people like to engage in “stimming,” which is a self-stimulating action such as hand flapping, rocking, or humming that they view as very calming. While it may seem unusual to someone who is neurotypical, recognize that this behavior is integral to the well-being of many autistic people and encourage those with autism around you to “stim” whenever they feel the need. By providing a safe space for autistic people to be themselves without pity or judgement, you can work to earn their trust while promoting autism acceptance.
Due to the efforts of outspoken autistic people who have worked to advance understanding and acceptance of their disability, the negative stigma that has long surrounded autism is finally beginning to fall away. But there is still a lot of progress to be made before the autistic community has the full respect of a society largely designed by and for those who are neurotypical. That’s why it’s important to practice effective autism advocacy in your everyday life, not just during Autism Acceptance Month. By taking time to listen to the needs and concerns of autistic people, supporting the common goals of the autistic community, and working to create a comfortable environment for those with autism, you can be an impactful autism ally.