Autism is the fastest growing developmental disorder in the United States. 1 in 54 children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, totaling over 5 million young people and adults. Each April, we celebrate Autism Acceptance Month to spread awareness, promote acceptance, and ignite change.
Virtually everyone knows someone with Autism, and it’s often a direct family member. Most people are able to give a quick, generic definition of autism. With this in mind, awareness is not needed. We know that Autism exists. We have heard the term over and over. We know, live with, and encounter persons with Autism daily. What we need is acceptance: Acceptance of the variety of ways autism can manifest itself; acceptance of the obstacles it presents for persons with autism; acceptance of persons with autism in our schools and workplaces and public life, so that they can participate more fully in our world.
The American Psychiatric Associations’ Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), defines Autism Spectrum Disorder as having communication impairments, restricted/repetitive patterns of behaviors that often occur in the early developmental period of one’s life. Autism is an umbrella term that covers numerous specific diagnoses including Asperger’s, Sensory Processing Disorder, Pervasive Developmental Disorder, etc. Due to the broad range of autism (and we haven’t even stepped into the possibility of dual diagnosis), there are many assumptions and stereotypes related to this population. Here are three examples:
“People with autism are intellectually disabled.”
“Autism is simply laziness/bad parenting”
“They will never live a successful/independent life”
Autism ≠ Intellectual Disability
At some point in time, people decided that if a person is not able to provide a direct verbal answer to a question, then the person must be intellectually disabled. Haven’t you had a time where the words came out wrong due to excitement, nerves, or because you were tired? People with autism often have trouble expressing themselves verbally because a physical need isn’t being met or because they are experiencing sensory overload. Autism Acceptance means that we give the benefit of the doubt to people who are different from us, and not assuming that something is “wrong” with them. Just because a person is autistic doesn’t automatically mean they have an intellectual disability. Researchers in recent years have discovered that autism can be a movement-based disorder, in which the body is wired differently than a neurotypical person’s. This means that the autistic brain often does not prompt the body to complete the task reliably. A verbal or physical cue, such as nudging an arm or leg, can initiate the desired movement.
Autism ≠ Bad Parenting or Laziness
A neurological disorder does not automatically correlate to a person being lazy or to a lack of sound parenting. I often hear people mumble something like that “he/she is just ignoring their parent” or “the parents won’t discipline the child, that’s why they’re a spoiled brat.” When a person with autism has too much sensory input or is unable to initiate body movement, people often assume that they are choosing to ignore the speaker or are being rebellious. Autism acceptance means acknowledging that sensory inputs can be overwhelming for a person with autism, and that they respond to environments differently than those without autism. Once someone gains an understanding and acceptance of the obstacles that a person with autism may face, they often also have greater appreciation for the hard work and amazing parenting that go into the equation. It is important to understand how sensory inputs impact a person with autism’s experience of the environment. Sometimes adding or removing a stimulus makes all the difference in enabling them to interact with their surroundings. You can experience the world through the eyes of someone with autism by watching the video below:
People with Autism can live full and independent lives
Temple Grandin is a professor of animal science. Carly Fleischmann is a noted author and speaker. Both of them have autism. When the right supports are in place, any person can be successful. If you have no tools, then you cannot achieve any dreams. But there are great resources available to individuals with autism, and there are great examples of people who have used the tools that exist to thrive. Autism acceptance means challenging your picture of what is possible for someone with autism and widening your perspective to include people with great careers and families. There are many blogs by people who are true autism advocates: people who have been diagnosed with autism. Three that I follow can be found here, here, and here. These authors have described their day to day struggles and successes with their diagnosis, sharing tips on what enables them to live the most independent lives possible. There is also a documentary called Wretches and Jabberers that has been very successful in North America which details the day to day lives of two autism advocates (Larry & Tracy) as they travel around the world and share their stories.