A group of students pose together, wearing red to commemorate autumn awareness and World Autism Day, which is held April 2 of each year. MADELYN JULE / SNAPPER
April is Autism Acceptance Month – also known as Autism Awareness Month – a time to honor and celebrate autistic people and to acknowledge disability rights and their contributions to the community.
Autism Spectrum Disorder is a developmental disability where the affected individual’s brain functions differently from the majority population. They may have specific special interests and repeated behaviors, while also sometimes struggling with sensory, communication, and social skills. Because of this, autistic people see and navigate the world in a unique way.
While in first grade, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a since antiquated term for a form of autistic. Readers may notice that I use the term “autistic people” instead of “people with autistic.” This is due to a preference for identity-first language. While autistic people may identify themselves differently, I use this term because I do not really see my condition as a disability or a disease that I have, but as an aspect of my being that makes me who I am.
My journey as an autistic person has been complicated and even heartbreaking at times, but at the end of the day, I learned to love myself because my condition makes me the person I am. Even in today’s world, it can still be difficult trying to be accepted as an autistic person and inform others of my condition. Because of this, I would like to share the history, issues, and contributions of autistic people.
The Fight for Acceptance
At four years old, Donald Triplett was the first person to be diagnosed with autistic in 1938 by renowned child psychiatrist Leo Kanner, who later coined the term. Triplett, noted for his intelligence and introverted nature, broke ground for this milestone, and still lives today to see the legacy he and Kanner left behind as the study of autistic and autistic people continues to progress.
In 1972, The Autism Society commemorated National Autistic Children’s Week, which is now National Autism Awareness Month, in order to promote advocacy and change regarding the treatment and acceptance of autistic people. Today, organizations around the world celebrate this month by telling the stories of autistic people and educating the community on the beauty of neurodiversity.
We have come a long way in terms of how we treat autistic people, from being institutionalized and sometimes even killed to having successful careers and joyful lives. Despite this, discrimination and ableism persist throughout the world. Access to adequate healthcare and disability rights remain issues, while even in countries such as Canada and New Zealand, immigrants may face deportation if they are found to be autistic.
In addition to legal discrimination, there is also social discrimination. Traits and symptoms displayed by autistic people may lead to them being labeled as “weird,” “stupid,” or “annoying” which, especially in schools, effectively serve as a Scarlet Letter. The fight for acceptance is far from over, which is why it is important to not only raise awareness – as most of us know that autistic exists – but also create a safer community for all people with disabilities.
In addition to ableism, autistic people also face issues related to age, gender, and ethnicity. Women and people of color are often undiagnosed due to the biased diagnostic criteria for autistic, which dates back to its early years when the subjects studied were all young white boys. Even today in the United States, for every girl diagnosed with autistic, at least four boys have the same condition. Racial prejudice also leads to symptoms in people of color being dismissed or denied adequate care. This becomes even more difficult as those undiagnosed grow older, as access to resources dwindles with the subject’s age.
With a lack of resources for treatment, self-diagnosis can also be harmful. Social media provides great resources to autistic people and those who may suspect they are autistic. However, misinformation and inadequate resources also lead to many saying they have the condition without any evidence or diagnosis to suggest this as fact. Self-diagnosis can lead people who may have other conditions to harm themselves by spreading misinformation to others, which is why it is important to do one’s own research or seek treatment first before claiming themselves as autistic.
April is also Sexual Assault Awareness Month, which brings light to the issue of abuse against autistic people. While the sexual assault rate for all women is around 20% to 30%, this number increases exponentially for autistic women. According to a 2022 study by the Frontiers Research Foundation, an estimated nine out of every 10 autistic women and girls are survivors of sexual assault or abuse. This is an especially shocking number and is upsetting when one takes into account that people with disabilities are often targeted for abuse due to their perceived vulnerability.
How to Educate and Celebrate
Autism is a very well-known condition in the United States, which is why this month should be about acceptance in addition to awareness. Educating the community on autistic people and the issues we face leads to celebrating the beauty of neurodiversity every day.
While I myself am autistic, everyone navigates their journey as a neurodivergent person differently. What may apply to me may not be true for others. However, I try my best to explain these issues and what I face from my perspective, so people can be more open-minded and understanding.
Another point to note is that while autistic is a spectrum, it is not the range of being “more” to “less” autistic, or of having a higher or lower ability to function. Rather, autistic is itself a very diverse condition that can manifest in different ways for people. Some autistic people struggle in some aspects of their lives while their peers need additional support in others.
My suggestion to neurotypical or non-autistic people is to be open-minded and always pursue a deeper understanding of people unlike yourself. There is no such thing as a perfect ally, but amplifying the voices of others goes a long way. Read articles and literature by autistic people, follow neurodivergent creators on social media, and be respectful to everyone regardless if they confirm they are autistic or not. Rewire your thinking from stigmatizing traits of autistic people to embracing their differences. Being different is beautiful, and it is about time we celebrate it.