If you have a connection to the autism community—or even if you don’t—you may have heard that April is Autism Awareness Month, also referred to as World Autism Month. There is no formal designation for this month, but the celebration evolved from the Autism Society of America’s first National Autistic Children’s Week in 1972 and the United Nations’ official observance of World Autism Awareness Day on April 2.
In many places, Autism Awareness Month is a big deal—homes, buildings, and landmarks will glow with blue lights, part of Autism Speaks’ Light It Up Blue campaign. Donations will be raised, social media posts will be shared, and rallies will be held. It’s a time to both spread awareness of the challenges and celebrate the differences of those affected by autism. But some organizations have called for a change in how we frame this month and their calls have been heard.
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In 2020, the Autism Society of America replaced “Awareness” with “Acceptance” for the first time and is now urging the United States government to formally declare April Autism Acceptance Month. What’s behind this shift, and why do the words matter?
Autism acceptance: is there still a long way to go?
Today, society has a greater awareness of autism than ever before. But those affected by autism often face a number of struggles throughout life, from bullying and prejudice to limited job opportunities and access to health care.
Education about the autism community is important, but advocates argue that we shouldn’t stop there. Autistic people need not just awareness, but acceptance and inclusion in order to have true support from their communities.
Autism Awareness Month becomes Autism Acceptance Month
The Autism Society of America isn’t the first autism organization to push for a rebranding of AAM. The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) has called April “Autism Acceptance Month” since 2011, saying: “Acceptance of autism as a natural condition in the human experience is necessary for real dialogue to occur.” Other groups, such as the Association of University Centers on Disabilities, Autistic Women and Non-Binary Network, National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities (NACDD), and more, also use Autism Acceptance Month over Autism Awareness Month.
In March 2021, the Autism Society of America urged the media to use the new language in their coverage. Christopher Banks, President and CEO of the Autism Society, said: “While we will always work to spread awareness, words matter as we strive for autistic individuals to live fully in all areas of life. As many individuals and families affected by autism know, acceptance is often one of the biggest barriers to finding and developing a strong support system.”
Ultimately, the goal of Autism Acceptance Month is to be more inclusive of the very community it seeks to celebrate. It promotes not just education about the differences of people with autism, but understanding and respecting those differences. It calls for more tangible progress toward equal rights and resources.
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What does the autistic community say about acceptance?
Autistic people aren’t a monolith—everyone has their own preference for what terminology he/she/they finds empowering. Still, many support the shift from “awareness” to “acceptance”.
For example, Lyric Holmans, creator of a blog called NeuroDivergent Rebel, tweeted: “Autism Awareness – knowing autistic people exist. Autistic Acceptance – accepting autistic people as they are, strengths and weaknesses. Autistic Pride – Autistic people feeling safe & confident enough to have pride in their authentic neurodivergent selves #WorldAutismDay”.
Sarinah O’Donoghue wrote in a BBC article that: “Moving from ‘awareness,’ which is often used in discourses on disease and illness, towards ‘acceptance,’ which is more positive, will help to destigmatize the condition and enable autistic people to speak about our condition on our terms.”
Another autistic author, Elle Love, wrote that: “Creating awareness was the first step in our conversation about disability inclusion, however, acceptance enforces awareness and reflects how our society should celebrate the differences and abilities that neurodivergent people have.”
Although there is still a lot for communities to learn about autism, it’s just as important for people to put what they learn into action. The shift toward Autism Acceptance Month will hopefully lead to more resources for people on the spectrum and their families, better quality of life, and a more inclusive world.
At the end of the day, nobody can tell you which version of AAM to prefer—but we can all agree that April is a time to celebrate diversity, come together, and ignite change.
Autism Society of America. (2021, March 4). Media urged to recognize shift from “Autism Awareness Month” to “Autism Acceptance Month” this April. Autism Society. https://www.autism-society.org/releases/media-urged-to-recognize-shift-from-autism-awareness-month-to-autism-acceptance-month-this-april/
Autism Speaks. (n.d.). World Autism Month FAQ. Autism Speaks. https://www.autismspeaks.org/world-autism-month-faq
Holmans, L [@NeuroRebel]. (2021, April 3). Autism Awareness – knowing Autistic people exist. Autistic Acceptance – accepting Autistic people as they are, strengths & weaknesses. Autistic Pride – Autistic [Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/NeuroRebel/status/1378393130316206090
Love, E. (2021, April 12). Why It Should Be Autistic “Acceptance” Month Instead of Awareness. The Gateway. https://unothegateway.com/why-it-should-be-autistic-acceptance-month-instead-of-awareness/
Mawani, F. (2021, April 2). The Shift from “Autism Awareness Month” to “Autism Acceptance Month”. UAB Institute for Human Rights Blog. https://sites.uab.edu/humanrights/2021/04/02/the-shift-from-autism-awareness-month-to-autism-acceptance-month/
O’Donoghue, S. (2021, March 29). An autistic person’s take on Autism Awareness Week: ‘Acceptance is more important than awareness’. The Social. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/13rLW7FHQPD4P4cSKLNvzVg/an-autistic-persons-take-on-autism-awareness-week-acceptance-is-more-important-than-awareness