Thoughts from HDI’s Glen Jennings On Autism Acceptance Month

This April, we recognize Autism Acceptance Month. This is a month where we celebrate what autistic people are capable of and work to support mainstream acceptance of autistic people. But it’s also a time to recognize systemic obstacles to autistic people. 

And there are many. 

Think about the ways in which society has a normative model of social interaction, and all the ways in which someone who cannot follow that model might be at a disadvantage. If you’re in a job interview, not making enough eye contact to satisfy your interviewer may put you out of a job that you’d otherwise have, but forcing eye contact is often difficult for autistic people. Even against an otherwise equal neurotypical candidate, an autistic applicant is at a disadvantage through no fault of their own. Once in a job, work environments can be uninclusive. Office social structures can be difficult to navigate, office politics can leave us at a brutal disadvantage, especially among autistic people with customer-facing jobs. Factors like this are likely just one part of the reason autistic people have a catastrophically low employment rate. 

Though the social aspects of autism are the most visible to neurotypical people, there are a host of other ways that life in the workplace and beyond is challenging. Sensory issues can make it difficult to navigate the world. I always have at least two pairs of polarized sunglasses close to me because bright sunlight is hard to see in and gives me a massive headache. The general noise of loud environments with a lot of conversational buzz can quickly become overwhelming. And fluorescent lights – which are used in many offices, schools, or grocery stores – can cause headaches. Staying under them for too long is physically exhausting for me, and there are many times in my life where I’ve had no real choice but to do so. 

We navigate a world that was not built with us in mind. Acceptance Month is about moving towards one that is. 

But while that discussion is important, I think we shouldn’t end the conversation there. 

As an autistic person, I feel like I also have a lot of joy to celebrate this month. 

The national view of autism has, despite these obstacles, changed radically in the since I was diagnosed almost 25 years ago. And as someone who’s so fond of pointing out that autism isn’t all doom and gloom, it feels wrong to point only to the areas where we face obstacles. 

So I want to celebrate how far we’ve come. How people are more educated about autism in this day and age than ever before. And that only leads to better outcomes for autistic people – fewer obstacles to diagnosis, which have historically been many especially for women and people of color, more acceptance and understanding and wider access to accommodations and resources. 

The fight isn’t over, but we’ve made incredible progress. 

And more than that, I want to celebrate community. An incredible autistic community has formed over the past few decades, focusing on self-advocacy and embracing our authentic and autistic selves. 

We see the world in unique ways, we have special interests that allow us to love and appreciate the world around us with such depth, and we can bring such unique perspectives and sensibilities to the world. 

And the more we obliterate those obstacles, the more autistic people will grow to recognize and accept the potential they have. And by accepting that potential, you get a better world – whether you’re autistic or not.

This month, we celebrate autistic people. This month, we work for a future where autistic people feel heard and included, and where people value us like they would anyone else.

This article represents the opinions of the author and interviewee, not that of the University of Kentucky. 

Thoughts from HDI’s Brittany Granville On Autism Acceptance Month

While it’s important that autistic people have their place in society, Brittany Granville believes autism acceptance goes beyond that. She thinks it can save lives. 

“So many autistic people, particularly autistics of color, have died because people don’t understand common traits of neurodivergent people,” Granville, who works with HDI’s Innovative Supports for Autistic Workers (ISAW) project said.

And saving lives can be as simple as recognizing that just because someone acts differently than others doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with them. 

“For me, autism acceptance means that there is an effort to acknowledge that some people are just different and that’s okay,” she said. “It means that you could see someone stimming or pacing back and forth in public and not automatically assume they’re on drugs or ‘up to something’ and that you need to call the police on them.”

The intersection of multiple identities among autistic people is important too, Granville said. Autistic people have consistently been proven to be more likely to have LGBTQIA+ identities, and so discrimination against one group will always harm the other. In particular, she highlighted the harm that obstacles to affirming care for transgender autistic people can cause. 

“Autistic people already have high rates of depression and suicide,” she said. “Not being able to access medication or express themselves in a way that makes them feel themselves only makes it worse.”

In addition, Granville said autistic people of color are often overlooked. 

“There’s the lack of awareness and acceptance in communities of color,” she said. “These people are often considered ‘just like that’ or ‘weird’ or ‘crazy’ are most likely neurodivergent but ignored by their communities, the medical system, schools, and often the autistic community itself.”

Across the whole community, though, Granville noted that the best thing that can be done to support autistic people to let them be themselves.

“The best thing non-autistic people can do is try being as non-judgmental of the ‘weird’ people around them,” she said. “Learn what autism is and don’t try to make us ‘less autistic.’”

And a part of that is recognizing that autism can look very different from one person to another – or even the same person, depending on the day. 

“The autism spectrum isn’t linear. No one is ‘a little autistic’ or ‘low’ or ‘high’ functioning,” she said. “An autistic person’s abilities can fluctuate widely by the day or even hour. A person can be energetic and friendly at noon and totally withdrawn and unable to talk at 6 p.m. Changes can be due to sensory input and social factors or it could just be a ‘low battery day.’”

This article represents the opinions of the author and interviewee, not that of the University of Kentucky. 

Thoughts from HDI’s Walt Bower On Autism Acceptance Month

For Walt Bower, Preservice Training Coordinator for HDI, there’s an important first step to take when talking about how best to support autistic people. “People need to learn what autistic people want them to know,” Bower said. “That is why I prefer to talk about autism acceptance instead of autism awareness.” Bower’s perspective falls in line with a shift that’s becoming more and more popular in how organizations and people are talking about autism. And April, which used to be called Autism Awareness Month, is consequently being reframed as Autism Acceptance Month for a lot of people.   

“I think this shift reflects input from autistic individuals and other community leaders as well as our commitment to sharing how we can promote advocacy for human and civil rights for all usautistic people,” he said. And that change in language is important, Bower said. Often, those calling for awareness do so without the input of autistic people. As a result, it’s been less helpful.  

“Sometimes, autism awareness campaigns, albeit well-intentioned, can make people who are not familiar with autism afraid of autistic people,” Bower said. “It has done more harm than good…It’s presented autistic people as bad, or autism as something that needs to be cured.” So if it doesn’t need to be cured, how should people approach autism?  

According to Bower, a big part of it is accepting that autism isn’t abnormal. “I think we need to think about disability and autism as part of life,” Bower said. “We need to recognize disability and autism as one integral part of diversity. Autistic people can get stigmatized as just being autistic when autistic people have many different identities, as leaders, students, workers, employers, parents, family members. Autistic people have and lead rich and fulfilling lives that are shared with the people all around us.”  

He also highlighted some of the models through which disability is viewed – in particular, the medical model of disability, which views disability solely through a lens of conditions that need medical intervention, a problem that must be solved, and the social model, which thinks of autism as just a part of human diversity that deserves to be accommodated. Bower also spoke of another model that he’s intrigued with that tries to find a way to incorporate elements of both models. He’s excited to see where those discussions lead and to learn more in the future. But he thinks it’s important that those discussions always seek to include a diverse range of people with disabilities, autistic people included.  

“The slogan of the disability rights movement is ‘Nothing about us without us,’ which means that autistic people need to be involved whenever autism is discussed,” Bower said. “We want to make sure that autistic people are included in conversations about autism, whether those conversations are about lives of autistic people or autistic people as a whole in our society…Autistic people know the problems that autistic people face, and have a lot of ideas how to solve them.”  

This article represents the opinions of the author and interviewee, not that of the University of Kentucky.