ASAN is pleased to commemorate the 10th annual Autism Acceptance Month this year. Over the past ten years, autistic advocates have transformed our society’s conversation around autism — but much remains to be done before we can truly fulfill the promise of autism acceptance.
Autism Acceptance Month was created by and for the autistic community to change the conversation around autism, shifting it away from stigmatizing “autism awareness” language that presents autism as a threat to be countered with vigilance. Ten years ago, when Autism Acceptance Month started, advocacy organizations run by non-autistic people spoke openly about working towards a future in which “autism is a word for the history books.” In contrast, autism acceptance emphasizes that autistic people belong — that we deserve welcoming communities, inclusive schools and workplaces, and equal opportunities. In the last ten years, we have seen real progress. Many autism organizations run by non-autistic people initially resisted “acceptance” language; over time, some of them have come to adopt it. We welcome this change.
However, acceptance is an action, and it goes beyond changing the language we use. In order to truly practice autism acceptance, autism organizations must also change how they think about autism, and how they work to represent autistic people. Working toward acceptance means recognizing autistic people ourselves, not just our family members, as a core constituency. It means including autistic people in meaningful leadership positions throughout an organization — on staff, in senior leadership, and on the board. It means aligning advocacy and research priorities with the priorities of the autistic community. Advocating for things that autistic people routinely describe as harmful, such as Applied Behavioral Analysis, institutionalization, or research on “curing” or preventing autism, is not autism acceptance. Autism acceptance means standing up against those who promote debunked anti-vaccine rhetoric, attack self-advocates, or work to expand segregated settings like sheltered workshops and institutions.
Autism acceptance means respecting the rights and humanity of all autistic people. It means centering the perspectives and needs of autistic people with intellectual disabilities, nonspeaking autistic people, and autistic people with the highest support needs — not by speaking over them, but by listening and looking to them as leaders. It means fighting to ensure that the universal human rights of all autistic people are respected, including and especially the rights of those autistic people with the most significant disabilities. And autism acceptance means recognizing the ways ableism and racism interact in our society, following the leadership of autistic people of color, and making anti-racism a core part of our work. In particular, while police violence continues to threaten the lives of Black autistic people, some autism organizations focus on police training as a solution; this is ineffective and ignores the role racism plays in police violence, rather than reducing the power of police to do harm.
We welcome the necessary and long-overdue language changes increasingly being made by other autism organizations. But without understanding acceptance as an action, autism organizations led by non-autistic people will continue to lag behind the rest of the developmental disability community when it comes to reaching the goals of community living and inclusion. It is past time for parent- and provider-led autism organizations to make real, structural changes, and join self-advocate-led organizations in working to make acceptance more than just a buzzword.
It isn’t just autism organizations that need to put acceptance into practice. ASAN was glad to see recent improvements to the Autism CARES Act, including increasing the number of self-advocates who are members of the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC). However, we need true parity on the IACC, and a rebalancing of research funding to align with the needs of autistic people ourselves. We applaud the White House urging the public to “learn more about the experiences of autistic people from autistic people,” in this year’s proclamation for Autism Acceptance Day. Still, there is much more to be done. We will continue to work to ensure that autistic people have equal rights, opportunities, and access — in health care, education, housing, employment, and throughout our communities.
We have made real progress over the past ten years of recognizing Autism Acceptance Month. The conversation about autism has changed, thanks to the hard work of the autistic community. But there is more to be done, and words must translate into action. As autistic self-advocates have said from the beginning, we must move beyond acceptance — to representation, celebration, and liberation. Acceptance is not the end goal. It is the baseline, a call to do better, the starting line of the marathon. We can and must go beyond that starting point and run the race, even if we cannot even imagine the finish line. Only by continuing to move forward can we create the world our community deserves.
The Autistic Self Advocacy Network seeks to advance the principles of the disability rights movement with regard to autism. ASAN believes that the goal of autism advocacy should be a world in which autistic people enjoy equal access, rights, and opportunities. We work to empower autistic people across the world to take control of our own lives and the future of our common community, and seek to organize the autistic community to ensure our voices are heard in the national conversation about us. Nothing About Us, Without Us!