Autism awareness is something I used to go all in for.
Not only in April--which holds World Autism Awareness Day--but every day of every year.
I have spent most of my life surrounded by people with Autism whom I dearly, dearly love.
Autism is dear to my heart in just about every way.
I have lived with, worked with, been teacher to, and parented people with Autism; and I am a better person because of it.
So of course, when the day came each year when I could be extra loud about just how much I love these people and how we can better accept and include them, I was loud and proud.
I was all about sharing information, flashing the puzzle piece symbol, and telling the stories of *my* experiences regarding Autism.
Over time, my mission to not only promote awareness/acceptance of Autism had to change, evolve, be broken down, and then be built back up again in a very different way.
I now know better and I therefore must do better.
I have learned much about how to step back and approach Autism awareness/acceptance in far more respectful, honorable, and truly inclusive ways.
Here are some of the things I have learned:
Just because I have experience living with and around people who have Autism, I am not and never will be the expert on Autism, nor is any other person who is not autistic.
Non-autistic individuals should never be the ones solely standing behind the megaphone, declaring what Autism acceptance should look like.
That megaphone belongs to autistic people and we must protect the space behind it that they deserve.
I am passionate about raising my voice alongside them, but I want to do that in a way that is respectful and effective, which means I must ask autistic people what *they* feel is the best way to implement this.
Autism awareness/acceptance tends to begin at awareness only and fail to ever achieve acceptance, as we seem to focus on learning the “facts” and projecting them on the Autistic Community rather than seeing individual human beings.
Autism awareness is so, so much more than studying information about Autism or paying special attention to an autistic person you may come across.
Simply seeking to learn “about” Autism without the input of autistic people only gives a tiny piece of a very, very large picture.
Why? Because autistic people are just that…people.
And just like every other person, they are all different.
There isn’t one answer, one description, one approach that fits all. Ever.
Their needs, desires, and what things help them feel the most respected differ from person to person, even when a diagnosis is shared.
For instance, I know some individuals who prefer to be called a person with autism…others who prefer to be called autistic…and still others prefer to be called an autistic.
How can we know how to respect these individuals best when our education comes from a random clinical internet article and not the person or people we are seeking to better honor?
Some people appreciate the puzzle piece symbol as a representation of Autism while others find it highly offensive.
I know some people on both sides.
Some find the descriptions of placement on the spectrum insightful, and many others find it demeaning and degrading.
We must choose to be the students of those who live Autism—truly live it—each and every day.
Allow yourself to be challenged, listen well, and better as you learn to know better.
I think ultimately, the greatest thing I am learning is that awareness days, months, and symbols of any kind can never ever stop on the doorstep of whatever cause it is we are advocating for.
The truth is, Autism awareness/acceptance is really HUMAN awareness and acceptance.
The bottom line is that everyone is diverse, distinctive in the thoughts, opinions, and feelings that make them themselves.
So perhaps, it has little to do with Autism and everything to do with treasuring every single human being simply because they are…well…human.
If we can take authentically take this approach, we will naturally find ourselves handing the spotlight back to autistic people.
For when we honor human beings for who they are, we seek to learn from their experiences, better understand their needs and desires, and move mountains in order to show them the respect and honor their deserve.