This year, April 2 marks the 14th annual World Autism Awareness Day and the beginning of Autism Awareness Month throughout April.
The day is heavily promoted by Autism Speaks, the largest autism advocacy organization in the US. However, the group has been criticized and condemned by more than 60 disability rights organizations in the past for a “lack of representation” and “exploitative and unethical practices.”
As a result, the Autism Society of America, alongside other leading disability organizations across the country, announced last March that they are formally shifting all references from “Autism Awareness” to “Autism Acceptance.”
“The shift in the use of terminology aims to foster acceptance to ignite change through improved support and opportunities,” the Autism Society said in a press release.
Sarah Rose, Disability Studies Minor director, said the shift to Autism Acceptance Day is an important move that better incorporates the experiences of people with autism.
The phrase “autism awareness” focuses too much on the families and people around the autistic person, which can make them seem like a problem, Rose said.
This was an issue highlighted by Autism Speaks’ former standpoint that autism is a disease that needs to be cured. The term “autism awareness” was officially removed from the organizations’ mission statement in 2016, but the years of having it in place caused many advocates to lose faith and withdraw their support.
“Autism awareness” programming tends to locate the “problem” in the autistic person and their behavior rather than the attitudes and reactions of others, Rose said in an email. “Autism acceptance” is about celebrating autistic people as they are.
It’s crucial for people to listen to the voices of autistic people because living with autism is part of their lived experience, identity and how they perceive the world, Rose said.
History senior Amanda Boone said she loves that Autism Awareness Day is starting to be called Autism Acceptance Day because neurotypical people sometimes get confused when trying to bring awareness to the autism community.
Sometimes it sounds like awareness campaigns are comparing autism to diseases like cancer, which is why word choice is so important when speaking about autistic people, she said.
“Autism Awareness” comes with a long history of ableism, Boone said in an email. By bringing “awareness” to autism, the able-bodied community has turned it into something that should be prevented, fixed and eradicated.
“Autists actually like being autistic,” she said. “Neurodivergent brains are a beautiful aspect of diversity in the human population.”
Instead of bringing awareness, Boone said people should educate and teach acceptance so autists are not forced to mask and change their natural behavior in order to conform to social norms.
Asking autists to change is harmful because it’s telling them that there is something inherently wrong with them and how their bodies function, she said. Autism has its benefits, and it’s not only bad characteristics they deal with.
Changing the name can help more neurotypical people realize that most people in the autism community don't see it as a downfall, Boone said.
Nursing junior Jayy Holguin said it feels like the term “awareness” is usually for bad things, and autism isn't something that's bad.
“You don't need to be aware of it because it's not really a negative thing,” she said.
Holguin said the Autism Self-Advocacy Network is a good resource to help educate others on autism because it has good information and is mostly written by autistic people.
She also encourages people to donate to the families of autistic people directly, as every need is different.
Rose recommends getting educated on autistic perspectives about autism and neurodiversity. People should think about destigmatizing all behaviors on a spectrum, not just those that are a little on the spectrum, she said.