A Perspective Switch

April is Autism Awareness month. In recent times, there has been a shift from calling it Autism Awareness to Autism Acceptance. Why the change? Awareness is easy. Acceptance takes work. Acceptance requires a conscious effort and is a constant process that changes your behavior based on your awareness. With those who have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), acceptance offers empowerment and helps to move the broader population towards embracing them and their differences.

 

Since the 1970s, there has been a push for world awareness of autism. In 2018, the CDC reported 1 in 44 children in the U.S. being diagnosed with ASD. The disorder has received exposure through the movies (“Rain Man”) and television (“The Good Doctor”) making the need for awareness less of a target. In 2021, the Autism Society of America, the nation’s oldest leading grassroots autism organization, shifted its focus from Autism Awareness Month to Autism Acceptance Month. 

Importance of Acceptance

This simple but important revision from awareness to acceptance is critical for change. One of the best places to encourage change is the classroom. In a study by Craig Goodall, 100% of the ASD students in the autism inclusion class had negative experiences that included bullying and feelings of isolation and loneliness. The ASD students also felt that the teachers could have mitigated those experiences by being more attuned to what was going on with them. Some suggestions to improve future inclusive classes were:

  1. Providing social activities to try to help the person with ASD to be an accepted member of the class/year group.
  2. Providing a quiet area in class for those with ASD who need some time out (from social overload).
  3. Providing extra time for autistic students to socialize.

 

Normalizing differences aids in the acceptance of ASD students. In the inclusive classroom, neurotypical students are provided exposure and interaction with neurodivergent students. As the teacher models inclusivity by not reacting to behaviors that go against the “norm”, the normalization of those behaviors occurs in the classroom setting and potentially helps students generalize this acceptance in other environments. This educates students about autism so that it is not so unusual or foreign to them. They may be more open to interacting with autistic students if they understand them better.

Beyond the classroom, acceptance is important to promoting the growing need for the broader community to not just acknowledge the differences but to meet those with ASD where they are. By doing this, we enable individuals with ASD to live fuller lives. Autism is an organic disorder and through acceptance, we are supporting those with the disability as they try to overcome the many barriers they face in life and society. It creates more opportunities in education and employment. It encourages them to become better advocates for themselves as they strive for a more independent life. According to Autism Speaks, more than 70% of adults with autism are unemployed. Autistic and neurodiverse individuals have skills that can be applied to many jobs; they just need the proper support and accommodations in order to succeed in these positions. 

“While we will always work to spread awareness, words matter as we strive for autistic individuals to live fully in all areas of life,” says Christopher Banks, President and CEO of the Autism Society of America. “As many individuals and families affected by autism know, acceptance is often one of the biggest barriers to finding and developing a strong support system.” 

From Acceptance to Action

What can you do during Autism Acceptance month? 

  1. Inform your students. Awareness is the first step towards acceptance. Teach your students about ASD and what it can look like. Help them to better understand the people who have autism.
  2. Light it up BLUE! Autism Speaks, the largest autism advocacy organization in the United States, encourages people to wear blue as part of their “Light it up Blue” campaign during April. Ask teachers and students to wear blue, use blue light bulbs, and change their social media profiles to blue to spread awareness.
  3. Have students research famous people with autism: Dan Ackroyd (actor), Albert Einstein (theoretical physicist), Temple Grandon (professor), Anthony Hopkins (actor). 
  4. Suggest to your students books, movies or television shows with characters on the spectrum. 
  5. Teach kindness. Autism traits can be confusing to the neurotypical. These traits can be but are not limited to: social anxiety, difficulty interacting with others (social awkwardness), seemingly rude, blunt or disinterested behaviors, and emotional outbursts/meltdowns (children). The neurotypical reaction to these behaviors might be inappropriate or defensive but if they are aware, then they can demonstrate acceptance and inclusion through acts of kindness, understanding and compassion. 

For more ideas on how to help with Autism Acceptance month, check out the Autism Speaks website (World Autism Month | Autism Speaks)