The autistic community abhors April because it is fear-mongering time. This is because people who experience fear generated by their child’s diagnosis are basing their information about autism from a highly visible anti-autism organization masquerading as a charity. This organization hijacked the United Nation’s World Autism Day, which was intended to uphold autistics’ human rights, support efforts to eliminate stigma, and foster a better understanding. They eclipsed it with their “Light It Up Blue” fundraising campaign which flew in the face of all the original aims of the UN: They deliberately propagated misinformation and rhetoric as a clever means of garnering generous donations from well intentioned, yet poorly informed people. They used sensationalist scare tactics and dehumanizing language that portrayed autism as a tragic epidemic that robs parents of their children and destroys marriages. They declared “war on autism,” hell-bent on finding a cure and eradicating it. They raised millions of dollars, yet as can be seen from their tax exemption form, less than 4% of its budget actually went towards helping autistic people. A very large share of its budget went towards eugenics research, intending to eliminate autistic human beings. Another sizeable percent was spent on prolific television advertisements, the propaganda vehicle that shaped the general public’s view of autism as tragedy and autistic people as sub-human. Parents began practicing filicide, and courts of law and courts of public opinion excused these parents who murdered their children, with the media portraying these murders as “justifiable and inevitable” due to the “burden” of having a disabled person in the family. Please visit disability-memorial.org for an accounting of these murders and the media records surrounding these cases.
Understandably, the autism community is outraged by this organization and considers its blue puzzle piece an upsetting and offensive symbol, tantamount to the swastika. Witnessing our communities’ businesses, neighbors, and loved ones participate in “Light It Up Blue” campaigns every April is as unnerving and psychologically damaging as watching a Klu Klux Klan hate march because it represents to us the lawless murders of disabled people at the hands of the ones who they should have been able to trust the most. The annual reminder of how society reported on, discussed, justified, excused, and replicated these murders is very intimidating.
After years of outcry from the autistic community, this organization has made some token changes (they have stopped televising their most offensive commercials), but the damage they’ve caused in shaping the general public’s misconceptions and prejudices had been done. And this damage continues to wreak havoc in the lives of autistic people: Bias bars us from obtaining gainful employment, impedes access to appropriate medical care and inhibits people befriending us. They continue to ignore our voice. They make no efforts towards reparations for the damage they have facilitated. They don’t have the decency do away with the symbols that are so abhorrently offensive to us, and they position themselves as the authority on autism (when the true authority on autism are actually the autistic people themselves).
So this April, please show your support for the autistic community by boycotting Autism Speaks, their blue puzzle pieces, their blue lights, and their insufficient “awareness.” It isn’t enough to be aware of autism; we need acceptance. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network’s, Autism Acceptance Month is about treating autistic people with respect, listening to what we have to say about ourselves, and making us welcome in the world. Because autistic people are your friends, family members, children, partners, classmates, co-workers, fellow-citizens, customers, and neighbors making valuable contributions to our world. Autism is a natural part of the human experience. Autistic rights are human rights. Autistic people can speak for ourselves, and we want you to listen to us. We aren’t going anywhere, because this is our world too. There are all kinds of minds, and this world is big enough for all of us. (For more information, please visit autisticadvocacy.org)
So in the spirit of Autism Acceptance Month, which focuses on sharing positive, respectful, and accurate information about autism and autistic people, I would like to de-bunk some widely held misconceptions:
1. We do not lack empathy, in fact many of us are acutely sensitive. This is perhaps the most damaging misconception, because people who lack empathy are sociopaths (which is a mental illness).
2. Autism is not a mental illness, it is a developmental, neurological disability. It is present at birth. What makes a person autistic is that their brain developed differently. There is no cure that can change a person’s neurotype.
3. Attempts to make an autistic person appear more neurotypical (non-autistic), such as ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) are cruel and damaging. Many autistic adults who were forced to do ABA as children have been traumatized by the experience. (Please google Amy Laurent Ted Talk for more information).
4. There may be just as many female autistics as male, but they are being missed in the diagnosis process because the criteria is biased toward the male presentation, and females are better at compensating for and hiding their idiosyncrasies. Because of this, many women do not receive diagnosis until later in life, when they are moms and grandmas. If you would like to learn more about this, read Spectrum Women: Walking To The Beat Of Autism (16 autistic female authors collaborated on this book).
5. Many autistics have average to above average intelligence. We have asynchronous development, and we have an incredible capacity to learn. This means that although we may be behind age peers in some areas, we can be far ahead of age peers in other areas, and we can quickly catch up in the places we are behind, given the right learning environment. This is why holding an autistic child back a grade is a disservice to them: They will not need an entire school year to catch up, and they will be bored and disengaged.
6. Not all autistics are shy and introverted. Some of us are gregarious or extroverted. However, just like you, we can become withdrawn when we are ostracized and do not feel safe. Provide a safe place where we are respected, allowed to be ourselves, and are free to ask questions without ridicule, and watch us bloom!
7. Only a very small percentage of autistic people are savants (like “The Good Doctor”), and we are not all computer-techies. We are as diverse in our aptitudes and talents as the non-autistic population. However, many of us have some unique talents that surpass yours: detail oriented, logical thinking, effective systemizes, talent for pattern recognition, precocious learners, ability to hyper-focus for long periods of time, out of the box thinkers, great long-term memory, acute hearing, sense of smell, and/or taste, creative, loyal, reliable, not duplicitous, non-judgmental, resistant to peer pressure.
8. People do not outgrow autism. We learn to adjust, cope and become better versions of ourselves, just like everyone else. But autism is still a part of us even if you can’t see it, and we are still challenged by our sensory sensitivities, emotional regulation, and managing our personal bioenergetics resources. So autistic adults still need and deserve support and reasonable accommodation.