The month of April is the nationally-observed Autism Acceptance Month. It was created to respect the rights and humanity of autistic people and expand awareness of the unique perspectives and needs of people with autism. This observance was previously known as Autism Awareness Month, but advocates pushed for change, arguing that autistic people need not only awareness but also acceptance to truly garner support from their communities. While awareness is important, possibly more so is acceptance. Many people are now aware of what autism is, but what is needed now is advocacy and change. What the world needs is not just education on the complicated subject of what it means to have autism, but also empathy, understanding and respect for those differences.
So, what is autism? The official definition is that it is a developmental disorder that affects a person’s nervous system and their ability to communicate and interact, but it’s so much more complicated than the definition suggests. Autism falls under the category of neurodivergence and is a spectrum from high-functioning autism to low-functioning autism, in which people are more severely challenged and may need more support. However, some people have been trying to move away from the low- and high-functioning labels, arguing that these labels are harmful and fail to describe how every single person who is autistic has their own special strengths and challenges because of how vast the spectrum is.
Neurodivergence is a term that not everybody fully understands. It’s used to describe people who have brain differences that affect the function of their brains. These brain differences include, but are not limited to, autism spectrum disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Down syndrome, dyscalculia, dyslexia, intellectual disabilities, sensory processing disorders, social anxiety, or mental health conditions like bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Being neurodivergent is a difference in how one’s brain works, which can make it challenging for these people to navigate a system that was set in place for neurotypical people, or people who do not have a difference in how their brain works. It is estimated that 15-20% of the world’s population is neurodivergent. Autism affects an estimated one in 36 children, according to the CDC.
Whether it’s ADHD, Tourette’s, ASC, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, dyslexia or so many other things, some people just don’t know how to respond to neurodivergence. And when people don’t know how to respond to something, they tend to shame it; to distrust it. It’s hard to be different in the world that we live in right now. As they grow up, kids with autism often have difficulties making friends, fitting in and understanding accepted behaviors and nonverbal social cues. Autistic people also often will do something called “masking,” in which they will suppress certain behaviors that comfort and calm them but others would call weird, like stimming. Stimming is defined as a repetitive performance of specific movements or vocalizations, which serves as a coping mechanism for overstimulation and sensory overload. Masking is a way of camouflaging as a neurotypical person, but is often extraordinarily exhausting and mentally taxing.
A lot of the time, neurodivergent people experience undeserved stigmas from peers, or even adults and teachers, who haven’t been educated on and fail to realize what it means to be neurodivergent. There has been progress, however. When previously people sought mainly to stamp out differences, support has been growing steadily to allow these students to be themselves and create an open and inclusive environment. There’s also been a push toward teaching these students how to self-advocate for their needs. Most everyone can agree that we need to implement more diverse and inclusive teaching styles. Not everyone, however, can agree on how. How does one measure the amount of support that a child needs? These are often measured in IEPs, or Individualized Education Programs. These provide a layout for what support, or special services, a student might need to achieve their full potential in school.
Neurodivergent kids and kids with special needs, mental disabilities or differences do struggle as a result of these failures in our system; it has been proven again and again. A U.S. study found that 78% of children with autism have at least one mental health condition, while nearly half have two mental health conditions or more. As they got older, 61.7% of adults with autism had two or more mental health conditions. So, the question is, are people with autism simply genetically predisposed to developing mental health disorders, or is something going wrong in their education system? And by education system, not only do I mean the one that we go through as kids, but also the general, lifelong one outside of classrooms that people go through as adults. A society that, as a whole, needs to change their way of thinking. Neurodivergent people are not less capable, or weird, or freaks. But it’s harmful for them to hear that they are from a young age. They often cannot understand and interpret nonverbal and social cues or expectations, and they’ve experienced social trauma as a result of this. This is not to say that every person and educator contributes to this, but enough have done so to produce very negative effects. People with autism need support and not a cure.
For Autism Acceptance Month, many landmarks will light up blue, and lots of events will take place to spread awareness. Donations will be made, and so will lots of posts. Through it all, it’s important to also focus on looking internally and shifting your perception of autistic people from “lesser” to people with their own unique strengths who are deserving of respect and support.