Autism (ASD) has become one of the fastest growing socially and psychologically recognized diagnoses in recent years, with an average 1:68 children being diagnosed. These numbers have consistently grown in the last 5 years. Better and faster diagnostics may be one contributing factor to the rise in numbers, as well as earlier quality interventions being utilized as necessary to promote independence. As a result of higher quality assessments and therapies, we have become a society of socially “aware” individuals who know what Autism is – even if they have not met anyone living with it.
“Awareness simply means to acknowledge that Autism exists; Acceptance is to acknowledge its value in society.
~Annie Tanasugarn, CEO, The Autism Analyst
So, how do we get there?
Focus on the strengths of those impacted by Autism: If you scour the internet, you will probably find dozens of videos showing those with Autism having severe behaviors, engaging in self-stimulatory behaviors, or aggressing at others. With so much negativity surrounding Autism, it becomes even more necessary to focus on the unique strengths of those impacted by ASD. Those with Autism are human beings; and should never be identified by a label. Labels should not define a person and can lead to stigma and discrimination.
Listen: Spend time getting to know a person with Autism and soon you will come to see that they are some of the coolest, most amazing, unique and quirky people in the world! They are a wealth of information and their voice needs to be heard. If a person with Autism lets you know they don’t like something – listen. Try to put yourself in their shoes. Collaborate on how to best communicate with them in a way that is functional for them.
Change the current system: Many businesses have become more “Autism-friendly” offering sensory-friendly movie theatres, longer store hours with certain hours dedicated exclusively to those with ASD or other special needs for shopping outside of the busiest times. Further changes need to occur to allow for full integration and acceptance. For example, more businesses should offer 24/7 hours for those who prefer early mornings or late nights to get their errands done (away from crowds). Extend public transit schedules for those who do not independently drive. Offer jobs with flexible schedules that are friendly for high-functioning individuals in the workforce.
Communication needs to include alternative ways of “speech”: There is a lot of emphasis on “speaking” and Autism. But the reality of it is that many individuals with Autism do not “speak” vocally and may never reach vocalization. And the first thing society needs to accept is that this is OK. Rather than focusing on “speaking”, society should increase accommodations for alternate forms of communicating with those living with Autism, including: PECS, sign language, using paper or a whiteboard, or gestures and body language to communicate.
Learn from them: I have often been cited as saying that I have learned more from my clients than any book has taught me on Autism. Understanding and accepting Autism is empowering – it leads to a richer way of reaching those touched by Autism to help empower them and yourself. Just as typical kids learn differently, so do those with Autism. The secret is to listen, watch, take notes, and collaborate. Learn to teach in a way that they can learn. With increased learning, a higher perspective evolves.
Volunteer: A great way to gain exposure in accepting Autism is to volunteer at a reputable organization where you can meet many individuals living with Autism. You may soon realize that the differences are small and the similarities are many. #Empowerment
Replace disorder with diversity. I try to steer clear of rhetoric which includes overusing the word “disorder”. This word can breed stereotypes and stigma for those living outside-the-box. The language that is commonly used when speaking about those with Autism often influences how these people are seen by society. So, dump words and phrases like “suffering from”, “afflicted by”, “struggling with”, “disorder” and replace them with words of acceptance such as “living with” and “neurodiversity”.
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Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2017). Data & Statistics.