Transcending Autism Awareness and Working Toward Acceptance and Education

(Content Warning for ableism, filicide, and police violence)

(Thoughts On the Spectrum video of this post)

As a country the United States has come a long way with regards to how we discuss and react to autism. Gone are the days when the vast majority of autistic people were institutionalized. As an autistic person I have to point out, though, that there is still a long way to go. People are incredibly aware of autism, but unfortunately that is often the extent of it: simply being aware that autistic people exist. That’s why I propose society should transcend the promotion of autism awareness and work toward autism education and acceptance.

In recent years autism awareness has increased, with more people becoming conscious of how common autism is and the fact that autistic people often face serious difficulties. There has not, however, been a significant increase in education, especially with regard to common behavior, the variability of the autism spectrum, and potential comorbid mental health issues. Also generally lacking is the promotion of autism acceptance, specifically respecting autistic people’s autonomy and presuming competence. This has created a situation where people are becoming more aware of autism without actually learning much about the subject or improving their treatment of autistic people.

The problematic nature of this narrow focus on awareness is further exacerbated by the current narrative surrounding autism. Years of organizations and individuals using fear tactics and the notion that autism is a tragedy, that autistic people are a burden, in order to increase public awareness and get people to take autism seriously has overtaken public understanding of it and causes serious issues for autistic people. Employers don’t want to hire a “burden”. Some parents don’t want to live with the “tragedy” of autism, and so they end their child’s life. A police officer doesn’t know how to respond to autistic people or doesn’t understand our behavior and finds it threatening, so they shoot first and ask questions later. These are all the result of the problematic narrative surrounding autism. A negative narrative perpetuates stigma. A narrative bereft of education and acceptance dehumanizes and further marginalizes said group.

I don’t know why a Florida police officer shot at Arnaldo Rios-Soto, an autistic man, and Charles Kinsey, a therapist who was attempting to help him, and I won’t speculate, though I can guess. What I do know is that if autistic people are indeed seven times more likely to encounter police, as a 2015 article from the Chicago Reader states experts on the subject claim, then autism education for law enforcement is clearly a necessity. According to disability rights journalist David M. Perry, Mr. Rios-Soto was arrested after the shooting, placed in a police car for hours, and was then held in the mental health ward of a local hospital. In the opinion of many, including myself, this is likely to have further traumatized Mr. Rios-Soto after a shooting which his family states had already severely traumatized him. Educating officers on how to interact with autistic people and what to expect won’t stop all these tragedies, but it might mean they happen less.

But it’s also necessary to change how we discuss the subject. As an autistic person, I know first-hand that there are real difficulties that can come along with autism. It isn’t easy. Being autistic is made much harder, however, due to how autism is viewed in society and the way we’re treated because of it. Most people hold a thoroughly negative view of autism, meaning we’re often mistreated, condescended to, disrespected, and treated as less than human. Society minimizing the incredible variety and complexity of the autism spectrum and those on it to a handful of stereotypes and negative views results in autistic people being further marginalized. This prevents us from being accepted in society as equals, and perpetuates ableism which denies the possibility of any potential and refuses an assumption of competence.

If you want to support autistic people one way to do so is to support education and acceptance, and respect the perspectives shared by autistic self advocates. There are many of us posting information on these subjects on Twitter for free every day. The best source of information on many subjects related to autism is autistic people, and only autistic people should be dictating the narrative. In the past the narrative has been almost completely controlled by non-autistic individuals and organizations. However well meaning they were, the result has been disastrous, detrimental, and damaging. Keep in mind that the “autism community” is first and foremost autistic people. It has become very common for non-autistic people, especially parents, to appropriate and inadvertently usurp autistic representation in a variety of ways, from inclusion in organizations to preferred language, generally controlling the narrative and discussion around autism. No matter your intentions, if you are not autistic you should not be claiming to represent autism or autistic people. We cannot find our place in society if non-autistic people are actively standing in the way, whatever their intentions. Being an ally means signal boosting. Respecting and aiding. Not usurping. Not holding us back.

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