Why We Need Autism Acceptance

by Paula Durbin-Westby

We need autism acceptance because too many Autistics, both children and adults, are being given the message that what we do, and who we are is not as important as “fitting in” or “becoming indistinguishable from our so-called peers.” (Our real peers are other Autistics.) Parents, educators, and the general public are being given the same message and feel like they have to comply with the mandate to normalize us or to only accept us if we are just like them.

The human race has a long history of both valuing individuality (which Autistic people have at the same time as being disabled), and also devaluing individuality, so that some of the worst of human behavior comes from extreme attempts to “all be the same.” Life is a balancing act, but recently, Autistics are getting the short end of the stick. Because we do not, by definition (including all versions of the DSM diagnostic criteria), “fit in,” there is an unhealthy focus on trying to make us something we are not.

In April, that unhealthy focus on our disability reaches fever pitch, and the unthinking (at best) and purposely negative (at worst) campaigns, such as “smothering” autism, “hacking” autism, and the like remind Autistics that we are under attack in some ways. No, my suggesting that we are “under attack” from these negative images is not any more offensive or exaggerated than some of the advertising stunts and well-meaning slogans I have seen this April.

Some of the organizations that have traditionally been the worst offenders when it comes to fear-mongering tactics are now tagging things on their websites with an “autism acceptance” label. It was inevitable. Autism Acceptance Day and Month, started by Autistics and our allies, have been very successful in countering demeaning videos and advertising. A glance at the articles and posts tagged makes it seem like those organizations are tagging things almost randomly, so that they can jump on the bandwagon of acceptance that our community founded. As my son, age ten, said regarding some of the articles misleadingly tagged with “acceptance” (one of which advocates NOT accepting autism!), “Íf you’re trying to cure something, it’s not all that accepting.”

In my work with Autistic-led acceptance initiatives, I hear a lot of questions and concerns. I will highlight just a few of these here:

I hear from parents who ask me, “At what age should I tell my child she or he is Autistic?” At the same time they tell me they have been putting it off, hoping that the child will be or seem so “normal” that they won’t have to do that hard work. If someone knows, and is told in a completely (and I have to stress completely!) accepting and positive way, that they have a “difference,” (this is not just limited to disability), and knows about it throughout their entire life, they will be OK. They won’t have to deal with the potential shock of learning about their difference for the first time when they are nine, or fifteen, and then having to rethink their self-concept.

I hear from Autistics who have been bullied in ways that are almost too hard to hear about. Some of these stories involve children who have been bullied by other kids, which is an all-too-frequent problem. An even more insidious problem is when children are bullied by adults, including teachers and parents, people who should be protecting them. Very little of the bullying literature I read discusses bullying by adults; it’s all focused on other children as bullies. I also hear from Autistics who can’t get jobs because they are “not like everyone else.” I hear about Autistics who are bullied as adults, at the workplace, or in their homes and communities. Rather than trying to make everyone in society conform narrowly to some ideal, acceptance is needed!

I hear from people whose first contact with the idea of autism comes from advertising campaigns designed to make everyone concerned and fearful. They then have to unlearn and re-learn what actual Autistic people are like, once they meet some of us.

I applaud other initiatives to promote true acceptance of Autistics and all people with disabilities and differences. To be highly successful, the concepts we Autistics have created need a wide audience and dissemination. Some misunderstanding and misuse of our ideas is to be expected, but not to be encouraged. I call on and challenge all individuals and organizations using the “autism acceptance” idea to:

  1. Acknowledge that the idea originated with Autistics- otherwise you are just appropriating our ideas and work and continuing the non-accepting, and discriminatory, model of devaluing us.
  2. Make sure that your acceptance ideas are appropriate and relevant to Autistics by including Autistics in meaningful (not token!) positions in your organizations, events, and initiatives.
  3. Think carefully about what real acceptance means. You can do this by communicating with many Autistics, by thinking about definitions of “acceptance,” by agreeing that Autism Acceptance is our term defined by us, and not using it if you don’t agree. Come up with your own idea unless you really believe in ours.