So, April is Autism Awareness Month. This is, unsurprisingly, a month dedicated to making neurotypical people (people who don't have autism or other brain disabilities) aware of autism. Like any other time when a lot of people are talking about autism, the opinions of actual autistic people often get ignored. So here are some things that I, as an autistic person, would like non-autistic people to be aware of during Autism Awareness Month.
1. Discussions about autism should prominently feature the thoughts and opinions of autistic people.
Just like discussions about women should center around women, and not, you know, their husbands, brothers, fathers, boyfriends, and any other men in their lives. If you can't understand why someone who has a particular disability (or any other kind of identity, for that matter) would know more about it than someone who doesn't, then I don't know what to tell you.
If you want to learn more about autism, watch "In My Language." Read "Don't Mourn For Us." Don’t trust people who don’t have the experience of being autistic to tell you all about us.
2. Yes, autistic people have feelings.
Again, I think this is pretty obvious, but a lot of people tend to think we don't feel emotion. So for the record: we have feelings. If we don't express those feelings the same way as other people, that does not mean they are not there. If we don't or can't communicate those feelings to you, that also does not mean they are not there.
3. Autistic people also have empathy.
A lot of people believe that autistic people do not experience empathy for others. In my opinion, this is due to a) prejudice and/or b) confusion about the psychological-technical definition vs. the commonly-used definition of empathy. We don't lack the ability to share other people's pain or happiness, which is how the word "empathy" is commonly used. What many of us do lack is the ability to tell what someone else is thinking or feeling without them telling us. I don't really think this is a big deal because it wouldn't even be a problem if people told other people what they were thinking or feeling instead of trying to make other people figure it out telepathically. This would make communication easier for everyone, including neurotypical folks.
4. Autism isn't [just] a social disability.
It has lots of other components, including cognitive differences, gross and fine motor problems, executive dysfunction, special interests and obsessions, and sensory issues. Focusing on the social problems that autistic people encounter leads to a very inaccurate understanding of autism. It also places too much blame on autistic people for the social ostracism we encounter, a lot of which comes from ableism. For more on the “social skills” issue and why it is messed up, read this.
5. The medical model is not a great way of thinking about autism.
Taking a medical-model approach means viewing autism as a disease in need of a “cure.” According to this view, a person has autism the same way they might have the flu – it’s an illness afflicting them, not an integral part of their personality. This is why people say things like “I want to bring my child out of autism” – because they genuinely believe that inside every autistic person is a normal person waiting to get out.
The reality is that autism doesn’t work that way. It’s built into our brains, and though each person’s brain grows and changes as they get older, we will always be autistic. This is who we are, and a lot of us are just fine with that. Therefore…
6. Having a passionate interest in making sure that no more autistic people exist is actually kind of offensive.
Seriously, think about this one. Think about an identity that you have, something important, something that makes you who you are. Now imagine how you would feel if there were lots of widely-respected groups devoted to making sure that no one who fit that description, no one like you, would ever be born again. This is one of the reasons that so many of us oppose research into the causes of autism: even though finding out more about the human brain is usually really awesome, in this case we fear any research into cause would just lead to a prenatal test for autism, and thence to ability-selective abortions.
7. Passing is not necessarily the best thing for autistic people to do.
A lot of early-intervention therapies for autism focus on getting rid of “weird” autistic behaviors and training children to act more normal. If these children then master the art of conformity and go on to become “indistinguishable” from their neurotypical peers, this is regarded as a great success. But few professionals consider the effect on autistic people of having to hide who we are and present ourselves in a way that feels inauthentic. In fact, though passing may open doors for us that would normally be closed, it often comes at a great psychological cost.
For the most part, people think nothing of asking autistic people to change everything about themselves in order to meet the demands of neurotypical society. But they rarely consider that it is also possible to change those societal demands in order to include autistic people.
I don’t quite understand the meaning of “awareness” in Autism Awareness Month. It’s incredibly rare to meet someone who is unaware of the existence of autism. However, I encounter myths and misinformation about autism wherever I go. I think this is as far as “awareness” can progress when the conversation surrounding a minority group is controlled by the majority. Of course neurotypical people can still contribute valuable insights related to autism – but only we can speak about it from experience. If your goal this April is to become truly aware of the realities of autism, you’re going to have to listen to what we have to say.