Autism Acceptance and the Significance of Language

« Back to BlogBy Kate O'Neill

Our language may be the most powerful tool we possess. Language and rhetoric, the art of effective or persuasive speaking, have a profound influence on our minds and opinions, as well as the minds and opinions of others. The way we speak about someone often influences how we feel about that person and how we treat them.

Many people around the world are familiar with celebrations like Autism Awareness Month: a whole thirty days dedicated to raising awareness about autism. Social media platforms fill with puzzle pieces and the color blue. Organizations spread information and ask for donations to continue their work.

But this system has a glaring flaw. By definition, awareness means “knowledge that something exists.” If so many people are already aware of autism’s existence, then, what exactly are these organizations bringing awareness to?

The Problem With Awareness

The Autistic community criticizes the use of autism ‘awareness’. “When people become ‘aware’ of something, it is not an act or a choice,” writes Richard Davis in a piece from The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism‘s website. “They just get information and become ‘aware’ of it.”

Awareness takes little to no effort, many in the community argue. Simply being aware of the existence of autistic people won’t result in a change in how someone views them. Writing on the Autistic Self Advocacy Network’s (ASAN) blog, Kassiane S. says “those who seek awareness ultimately have the goal of bridging the gap by making [autistic people] more like them.… Awareness makes sure the world knows how difficult we make it for those around us.”

The awareness mindset uses language for autism that parallels the kind of language used for diseases and illnesses: symptoms of autism, at risk for autism, affected by autism. It focuses on treatments and interventions, on advocating for the autistic community, rather than with. As one autistic contributor to a piece for the Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network (AWN) explained back in 2011: “Autism ends up being perceived as if it were something separate from the person – a collection of problems to be dealt with, rather than a group of people in need of understanding and accommodation.”

Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash

Acceptance, Acceptance, Acceptance

In recent years, the Autistic community has begun promoting a transition to autism acceptance instead.

Acceptance of autistic people for who they are, autism and all. “Acceptance of real human beings, with all our quirks, disabilities, gifts, personal preferences for how we live our lives,” wrote Paula C. Durbin-Westby in that same 2011 AWN post. An Autistic disability rights activist, Durbin-Westby founded Autism Acceptance Day and Month in 2011. “I saw the need for a model of autism that Autistic people could embrace,” she explained in 2017, speaking to the AWN, “something that would not make us feel bad about ourselves, like the ‘missing piece,’ ‘devastating disorder,’ and other then-popular and, sadly, still-popular characterizations of autism.”

The rhetoric used by that awareness mindset causes so much harm. Autistic people are not “missing” anything, like the puzzle piece visual might suggest. They are not flawed or damaged or something to be fixed. They are people, human beings, like Durbin-Westby said, who deserve acceptance of who they are – exactly as they are. As Kassiane says, “You cannot excise my difficulties and oddities without excising a large part of the whole package that is ‘me’.”

One Word, A World of Difference

How much difference can changing one word make? A whole world, actually.

The opportunity for change arises when society affords autistic people acceptance. Not changing autistic people to better fit in with a world designed by and for neurotypicals, but changing that world to better accommodate neurodiversities like autism. Not speaking over autistic voices, but including them in the conversation about autism. After all, who can advocate for the autistic community better than someone who is actually autistic?

Awareness strips autism from the person’s identity. Acceptance respects that to be oneself and to be autistic go hand in hand.

“Awareness says the tragedy is that I exist as I am. Acceptance says that the tragedy would be trying to make me any other way.”


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