Let’s rebrand April together!

A row of cars, lined up just right.
What's wrong with this picture? Absolutely nothing!

I always have mixed feelings this time of year. It’s great to have the visibility and attention on autism, but it almost always seems to be the wrong kind of attention. Here are some ways we can make the Aprils to come even better.

Choose progress: Acceptance > Awareness

April is widely known as Autism Awareness Month, and it’s a time full of puzzle pieces and invitations to “light it up blue.” Awareness is a great first step to making the world a safer, friendlier, and more fair place for autistic people. But it’s the floor, not the ceiling. And the floor is important, as long as it means we make progress toward something better.

Calling it Autism Acceptance Month could represent a kind of progress. It’s a way to flip the script and call attention to the strengths and talents of autistic people, instead of pathologizing them. To be neurodiversity-affirming, we must normalize seeing a variety of neurotypes as a reality, a positive one. And we must embrace that neurodiversity makes the world just as rich as the other types of diversity. Each year, we hear updated statistics about the number of autistic kids in the US, and people seem really troubled by it. We’ll know we’ve made progress when the prevalence rate doesn’t make people wring their hands. Because trust me, there are more autistic people than the statistics say.

Consider the social model of disability

It’s hard to really know how many people are autistic. There several reasons for this:

  • The diagnostic criteria is better now than it was in the past. So there are a lot of undiagnosed people like me out there.
  • Many people don’t have access to evaluations and therefore don’t get diagnosed.
  • Some choose not to get evaluated and self-identify, which is absolutely okay. (It’s a little different for kids, since school is one of the common ways they get supports, and most, if not all schools require a diagnosis to qualify for them.)
  • Girls are likely to not be evaluated or diagnosed, because antiquated diagnostic criteria tends to focus on the characteristics of boys.
  • The stigma of autism prevents many from seeking evaluations.

That last reason is extra unfortunate. Even in 2023, autism is still perceived by many people as a disease or disorder. Part of this is because autism diagnoses are made by psychologists or doctors, and as a result, autism is seen as a mental health or medical condition. The “medical model of disability” treats autism as a set of deficits and symptoms that require treatment. While it’s true that some autistic people have co-morbidities such as epilepsy, sleep disturbances and gastrointestinal conditions that require medical attention, not all do. Some just have a different way of thinking, socializing, communicating, or different sensory needs. Those differences don’t require medical intervention. But they are often lumped in with conditions that do. In contrast, in the social model of disability, people who are different struggle not because of their difference, but because of how they are treated by others, or because the systems they live or work in are not designed with them in mind. It has been called being “disabled by society.”

Choose your words wisely

One way society disables autistic people is through language. The following terms are preferred by many in the autistic community. Note: Many, not all! The correct terms are what the person wants used for themself. So just ask!

  • Identity-first (“autistic”) instead of person-first (“person with autism”, “on the spectrum”, “has autism”). Person-first can seem pathologizing. 
  • Support needs (high, moderate, low, variable) instead of functioning labels (high-functioning, low-functioning). “Support needs” conveys what’s important, and is kind at the same time.
  • Non-speaking instead of non-verbal. A person might not speak, but it doesn’t mean they don’t understand language or have nothing to say. Communication is so much larger than speech. 

There are plenty of other ways you can be supportive and be a part of positive change in the month of April. Supporting autistic-owned businesses, donating to organizations like the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) or NeuroClastic, or seeking and amplifying autistic voices are good starting points. It’s easy; just search for #actuallyautistic. 

How do you plan to celebrate?

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