Autism Acceptance: Beyond Autism Awareness
Updated: May 3
The month of April has long been associated with Autism. First, it was marketed as Autism Awareness Month. However, over the past half-century, a lot has changed in relation to what we know about Autism. I doubt there are many adults in the United States (or most of the world for that matter) who haven’t heard of Autism in some context or another. So, there’s less of a need for Autism Awareness at this point, though many people (including many professionals) still have much to learn regarding the myriad of ways Autism can present.
Photo Credit: Frances Mac Aonghusa
Why Autism Acceptance?
In the last few decades, there has been a call for a change from Autism Awareness to Autism Acceptance (Kronstein, 2018). This simple word change can lead to a huge shift in thinking. Many people believe(d) that Autism is a disorder that should be treated. From this perspective, we would need funding and research so we can find a cure. But Autism isn’t a disorder, despite the official diagnosis used by medical professionals. Autism is a neurotype. It is just a different way a brain can be. However, Autism is a disability and accommodations should be made to meet each individual Autistic person’s needs. In an affirming environment (one that meets their needs), Autistic individuals can thrive! This is why Autism Acceptance is important. You cannot meet someone’s needs if you do not accept them for who they are.
Learn from Autistic People
Autistic people are the experts on Autism! Autistic adults, and teenagers, have written books, made videos, and gone to social media to share their stories. Listen to them! If you hear something about Autism from someone who is not Autistic, go find Autistic sources to see what they have to say on the subject.
Since Autism is a neurotype and not a disease or disorder, Autism does not necessitate any specific treatment. However, some Autistic people benefit from receiving speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and/or psychotherapy.
Therapy goals should be focused on helping the Autistic individual in a way that aligns most with that person’s goals, needs, and identity. Goals should never be focused on making others around them more comfortable or making them fit in to society better. One example of an inappropriate goal would be improving or increasing eye contact. Eye contact is uncomfortable, or even painful, for a lot of Autistics. It also often interferes with listening and focusing. “Improving” eye contact does not help the Autistic individual.
Additionally, unquestioning compliance should never be a goal as this makes the individual more vulnerable to abuse. More information regarding appropriate goals and therapies can be found here.
Stimming is one way that all people regulate themselves. Think of what you do when you are stressed. Do you bounce your leg, click or tap your pen, twirl your hair, fidget with something nearby? We all stim!
Some Autistic people stim in ways that are seen as different. For example, some people flap their hands, rock back and forth, or make noises. Most stimming is not harmful and should be allowed, or even encouraged, as it can be a very effective coping strategy. If the stim is disruptive to others, then tools and strategies can be used to decrease that disruption while also validating and meeting the Autistic person’s needs. For example, family members who are sensitive to noise could wear headphones instead of asking the Autistic person to stop vocal stimming.
The only time stimming should be discouraged or stopped is if it is harming someone. In that case, the purpose of the particular stim needs to be determined so appropriate alternatives can be developed. You cannot reasonably ask someone to just stop stimming as this will inevitably lead to shutdowns and/or meltdowns.
Encourage Self-Awareness and Self-Advocacy
One of the most important things you can do to help Autistic people is help them to gain self-awareness and self-advocacy skills. Knowing what we need and being able to ask for it will greatly improve our lives. That is true for every human, but it is especially true for Autistic people!
Resources for Further Learning
About the Author
Briana Hoffman, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Chesapeake, VA.
Kronstein, A. (2018, March 20). Autism awareness or acceptance? Two very different mindsets. Retrieved April 13, 2023 from https://nsadvocate.org/2018/03/20/autism-awareness-or-acceptance-two-very-different-mindsets