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#CelebratingDifferences  – April Is Autism Acceptance Month

Changing The Language

It’s April! It is also Autism Awareness Month, also known as Autism Acceptance Month by many organizations and advocates. According to the Autism Society of America, which is committed to giving resources, sharing stories, and promoting legislation that will impact those with autism in a positive way – this year’s campaign is focused on #CelebratingDifferences. Their website states this year’s campaign focuses on providing information and resources for communities to be more aware of autism, promote acceptance, and be more inclusive in everyday life.”

This year, the Autism Society of America is focused on encouraging local, state, and federal leaders to begin calling this month ‘Autism Acceptance Month’. The group wrote letters to U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa, and Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who chair each body’s caucus encouraging federal lawmakers to recognize this month as Autism Acceptance Month and “embrace the inclusive goals of the community and align with the consistent language autism organizations and individuals have been using for years.” Earlier this month, President Joe Biden stated, “We honor those with autism and recommit ourselves to providing them and their families with the investment, support, and care they need to live independently, fully participate in their communities, and live fulfilling lives of dignity and opportunity.”

Christopher Banks, the CEO of the Autism Society said, “It’s not enough to know that someone has autism, we need to accept and push for inclusion so that individuals can fully participate in our social fabric.”

On local, state, and national levels, there are some ways you can showcase your acceptance for people with autism during the month of April (and all year long). These include supporting legislation that supports people with autism and their Home Care Providers/Direct Support Professionals. You can find bills currently being discussed in our state by visiting the General Court of New Hampshire website HERE. You can also support people with autism by purchasing goods and services from people who have autism, encouraging your workplace to hire people with autism and other disabilities, sharing stories about people with autism achieving their goals to change the narrative on how autism is perceived, and educating yourself and others on ableist language. As an accepting community we should be celebrating the strengths of people who have autism and encouraging schools and employers to do the same. By working hard to foster the strengths in students and employers with autism instead of focusing on their challenges, we are putting forth the effort to include and accept. Some who experience autism cite having it as a reason they have been so successful in life and reached their goals. 

Increasing The Visibility Of Autism In The Media

Throughout the past decade, the portrayal of autism in the media has grown both in the number of characters with autism in movies, television, books, and Broadway plays as well as how the character’s autism is presented to the viewers. The incidence of those who are diagnosed with autism has risen from 1 in 125 children in 2010, to 1 in 59 children in 2020 according to the Autism Society. This means that accurate and diverse portrayals of autism on-screen and on Broadway is more important than ever. The Netflix series “Atypical” is a coming-of-age comedy about adults on the autism spectrum, “Love On The Spectrum” (Netflix) is about romantic relationships between people with autism, and “The Reason I Jump” is a documentary about the experiences of those with nonverbal autism that can be viewed virtually here, https://kinomarquee.com/venues

It is important to showcase the many ways autism is presented and that it varies for each person. Some may see the autism spectrum as “more autistic” to “less autistic” when in reality it is much more than that. According to themighty.com, “fixations, the way one is able to communicate, noise sensitivity, social ability, anxiety, posture, eye contact, tics and fidgets, aggression, and depression” are all qualities that someone with autism may have and these factors could all impact one’s day-to-day life. None of these qualities make someone lesser or take away one’s potential, in fact many who have autism can excel because of these qualities. It is important to showcase people with autism in the media because those with autism will have the chance to see someone similar to themself in the media, and those who may not know a whole lot about autism can learn what life truly looks like for someone with autism. 

Those who experience autism have made their voices heard as activists and political leaders. Greta Thunberg is a Swedish environmental activist who gained recognition in 2018 because of her activism in regards to helping to fight climate change. Since age 15, Greta has attended protests, spoken at major events, participated in social media campaigns, and led many other young people to take more interest in learning about climate change and what we can do to prevent it. 

Greta experiences Asperger’s Syndrome which is a diagnosis on the autism spectrum and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). In 2019, Greta tweeted about her diagnosis, “I have aspergers and that means I’m sometimes a bit different from the norm. And – given the right circumstances – being different is a superpower”. According to the Applied Behavior Analysis Program Guide, an online resource for people looking for a degree in Behavior Analysis, some of the traits of Asperger’s that some may consider a hindrance to one’s ability actually help Greta in many ways. 

“She has an ability to stay hyper-focused on a topic, she is not concerned with fame or status, her ability to think outside the box and bring a highly original perspective, she is truthful in what she says and has high integrity, and she does not give in to bullies or what a popular stance may be among others,” according to the Applied Behavior Analysis Program Guide website. Her activism has encouraged others with autism to showcase their beliefs and become advocates themselves. 

Temple Grandin, who experiences autism , is an advocate for others with autism. She also has gained critical acclaim for the books she has written about animal welfare, neurology, and philosophy. She believes that her autism has helped her become the expert she is. According to biography.com, “As a high-functioning autistic person, Grandin has been able to make sense of and articulate her unusual life experiences with rare depth. She has described her hypersensitivity to noise and other sensory stimuli, which can make socializing painful in addition to being dull. She is a primarily visual thinker who considers verbal communication to be a secondary skill. Grandin also has an extreme sensitivity to detail and environmental change, which she credits for her insight into the minds of cattle and domesticated animals.” She has said that the contributions she has made to the field of animal welfare would not have been possible without the insights and sensitivities from her autism. 

Last November, Jessica Benham was elected to a Pennsylvania House of Representatives seat in her district. She has autism and after winning her election said, “I am going to draw attention to the problems the community is facing…people who have been marginalized and excluded, now is the time to say enough is enough. We can all be leaders who fight for justice”. Sam Crane, the legal director for the nonprofit Autistic Self Advocacy Network told ABC news, “There is a stereotype that public office is only for people with neurotypical social skills, people who are extroverted…Ms. Benham’s success might help others realize that’s not typically the case.

Two other elected officials have been open about having autism – Yuh-Line Niou is a legislator in New York who spoke about having autism in an interview in 2016 and has talked about it more since being elected, and Briscoe Cain is a legislator in Texas who talked about his experience with Aspergers after being elected. Many people with autism and disability advocates hope that these success will be a message to others with autism (and other disabilities) about what is possible and that having people in the room when it comes to legislation impacting people with autism will allow bills to be passed that are in the best interest of people who have a disability. 

Many people with autism and their advocates hope that these successes will encourage others with autism and other disabilities to become activists and run for elected office. At the same time, there is hope that people who don’t have autism will recognize these traits, accept and celebrate the differences and become a voice for acceptance in their schools, workplaces and communities. 

The Least Dangerous Assumption

The Least Dangerous Assumption is a theory created over 30 years ago by Special Educator Anne Donnellan that stated, “in the absence of conclusive data, educational decisions ought to be based on the assumption which, if incorrect, will have the least dangerous effect on the likelihood that students will be able to function independently as adults”. In recent years, many disability groups and advocates have showcased the importance in believing someone can do something, even if they have a disability instead of assuming that there is nothing the person would be able to do. 

The theory argues that the ways we instruct people with disabilities and the expectations we have for them need to evolve and we need to believe they are able to accomplish their goals. “The least dangerous assumption is to presume competence off all children. Assume they can learn. Assuming they cannot learn leads to segregated settings, missed educational interventions, and ultimately dependence in adulthood”, according to Donnellan.  

The purpose of Autism Acceptance Month is to help remove the negative stereotypes that exist for people with autism, showcase people with autism reaching their goals, and highlight legislation on state and federal levels that impact those with autism (and other disabilities). By showcasing those with autism as the capable and talented people they are, we can make our world more accepting. Please use this article as a way to educate yourself and others about autism and when sharing content related to autism throughout the month of April, use the #CelebratingDifferences.

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