November 29, 2020

Activism and unification on World Autism Awareness Day

As somebody on the autism spectrum who is fortunate enough to possess an optimistic frame of mind, a college degree, a rewarding career, a family of my own and a book to my name, I have good reason to celebrate World Autism Awareness Day. I celebrate the fact that I am far from being the only one who has proven that an autism spectrum profile does not always render happiness and success as being out of reach in spite of daunting challenges and adversity. And, on this particular World Autism Awareness Day, I am grateful for my ability to think “outside the box,” look past my own situation and acknowledge those who feel unacknowledged and upset while others celebrate.

I am referring to those on the spectrum, and their families, who face hardships that are significantly more acute than mine, who require more supports and who understandably don’t see a reason to celebrate. To all of them, I extend my heart and my well wishes. In consideration of them, I feel as though there is plenty that those of us who do see a reason to celebrate World Autism Awareness Day can do to acknowledge and help them.

It starts with an understanding of the importance of stepping outside our own shoes and into the shoes of others who hold views of autism that differ from our own. Only then can we fully embrace the true reality of the autism spectrum as including people who exhibit a wide variety of personality attributes and challenges of varying degrees of severity. There are those of us with relatively manageable challenges, which can be effectively addressed with time and hard work. There are folks on the spectrum with challenges that are considerably more difficult, if not impossible, to address and for whom life is an unrelenting struggle. And there are those who fall within the vast expanse that exists in between. This is why autism is frequently described as a spectrum.

Let’s not merely acknowledge those affected by autism who do not see any reason to celebrate. Let’s also reach out to them, as most of them probably long for us to do more of — as if World Autism Awareness Day were more than merely a day of awareness but also a day of action! Let’s continue to enjoy the occasion, shine big blue lights wherever we can, launch blue balloons into the sky and point to the accomplishments of many on the spectrum. But today, and on every future World Autism Awareness Day, let’s take the celebration to a whole new level, with a robust commitment to acceptance, outreach and unity in our hearts.

We can perform simple, yet significant, good deeds such as smile at them more often, invite them to social gatherings or offer them a helping hand when we notice that they could use one. We can advocate for greater acceptance of everybody on the autism spectrum and urge our non-autistic peers to refrain from condescension and bullying. In short, we can choose to exercise kindness and understanding, and to educate.

Too many adults on the spectrum face unemployment. These folks want to work and contribute to something bigger than themselves, though their families may not be aware of the existence of programs that can help them acquire meaningful employment or prepare them for higher education. They may not know about those companies that have a history of hiring adults with autism or those colleges that are well-suited for autistic students. Autism resource centers (ARC’s), The Asperger/Autism Network and Autism Speaks are but a few examples of organizations whose mission is to support the autism spectrum community and help autistic folks move forward. Let’s inform those in our community who are most in need of assistance of these types of resources in case they don’t already know about them. Doing so would result in them feeling a greater sense of acknowledgment, and we would feel better about ourselves for having reached out.

There are deep divisions within the autism spectrum community, which stem largely from differences in attitudes between those living with “higher functioning” autism and those living with autism profiles that carry more severe challenges. Folks with the former outlook, including me, are more likely to view autism as a profile of unique personality traits that need not be cured and which may be worthy of being embraced, are less likely to define it as being a medical condition and are more likely to celebrate World Autism Awareness Day. Folks with the latter outlook, for reasons that are very understandable, are more likely to welcome medical interventions intended to treat what they view as symptoms rather than personality attributes, probably feel overwhelmed and worn out, may very well be hoping for a cure for what they may construe as a global health crisis, and justifiably are less likely to be in a celebratory mood on World Autism Awareness Day. As a member of our shared community, I lament the divisions that have arisen as a result of these contrasting opinions and feelings.

But it does not have to be this way! Though we live in a society which regrettably is rife with divisiveness and tribalism, we can still choose to rise above this dynamic and listen to each other, even in the midst of disagreement. We can refrain from “us versus them” thinking and think instead in terms of “us and them” or “us alongside them”. There are reasons why all of us believe and feel the way we do. If we are able to commit to this kind of mindset and to these endeavors — and use our commitment as a launchpad for outreach where it is needed most — then perhaps that can lead to a greater sense of understanding and unity across our community.

Maybe all of this is unrealistic, utopian wishful thinking on my part, though I certainly hope not. I want what’s best for everybody living with autism, and my vision of that entails at least trying to bridge the divisions that exist among us with compassionate activism. Let’s extend the metaphorical olive branch to each other, whether affected by mild, moderate or severe autism. Then, perhaps sometime soon, folks across the entirety of the autism spectrum community can celebrate World Autism Awareness Day, together.

 

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