Autism Awareness- It’s Complicated

Today is Autism Awareness Day. It’s “Light It Up Blue”. The UN made this an international observance back in 2008. This day, and indeed this month, is meant to spread awareness and acceptance to those in our society who are on the Autistic spectrum. All good things, right?

Then why is this particular day so complicated to celebrate?

While I am not on the spectrum, I do have a myriad of friends who are or who have children who are. My niece also happens to be non-verbal Autistic. Now, about the time my niece was diagnosed, I did a fair amount of research and I spoke with a lot of people about the topic.

There’s a lot of controversy around Autism. From the causes of it (hint- NOT vaccines), to whether it’s a mental disorder or simply a different way of operating. Even the advocacy groups for Autism are fraught with controversy. Autism Speaks is an Autism awareness group in the US. You can’t utter their name without sparking a heated debate on their core purpose of finding a cure or their use of donated funds.

And let’s not forget the infamous puzzle piece debate. Originally used as a logo to depict the “puzzling aspects of Autism”, in 1963. The puzzle piece has been a point of contention for many Autistic people as it can give the sense that They “don’t fit” or are a puzzle to be worked out. This symbol was also adopted by Autism Speaks, which has not reduced the controversy about it at all.

The point is, all of this contention is getting in the way of the true meaning of the day. I’ve been chewed out for having an Autism Awareness ribbon with the puzzle pieces on my car. I’ve been scoffed at for wearing blue to recognize Autism Awareness Day. I’ve been given sympathetic pats on the back and a sorrowful “how sad” when I tell people that my niece is now able to respond verbally to some things. I don’t feel comfortable calling myself an advocate, but the reactions I’ve had to my attempts at support are baffling.

There’s so much concentration on how NOT to acknowledge those on the spectrum and not enough of actually celebrating the differences Autistic people bring to our society. And it shouldn’t be this way.

All I am really trying to do by these seemingly offensive gestures is celebrate and spread awareness of a condition (and to brag about my niece because, well, yeah, she’s awesome). This condition is not bad, not good, but just is. It’s one that desperately needs acceptance and awareness so that the stigma associated with Autism is reduced.

It’s easy to get sucked into the rabbit holes of controversies with this topic. But let’s stop and think about what this day (and month) really means.

One of the most consistent comments and phrases I heard while talking to people about Autism was “they don’t understand.” Now the context of that could be the Autistic person themselves or, more often, the “neuro-typical” people who interact with them.

This is the very thing this day of observance is supposed to address! Not blasting someone for sporting a blue puzzle piece shirt or by criticizing their attempts at understanding by reading up on different advocacy groups.

By learning about Autism, by having an open mind to people who think and act differently, by gaining awareness, we will close that gap of not understanding which will generate more widespread acceptance of people who are really just trying to live their lives the best way they can. Don’t bash people who are trying.

So. Educate yourself. Research. Read. Discuss and look to understand. Celebrate the differences and realize that today is about more than just the controversy. It’s about people.

Happy Autism Awareness Day.