Let’s move from autism awareness to acceptance

March 24, 2019 GMT

April is celebrated each year as Autism Awareness Month. Over those 30 days you’ll read or hear a lot of facts about Autism Spectrum Disorder.

You’ll learn that autism prevalence continues to increase (it’s diagnosed in 1 of every 59 children) and that accessing effective services can be a challenge in West Virginia. You’ll likely hear discussion about what might cause autism and debate about whether or not a cure will be — or even should be — found. Rallies, walks and other awareness activities will be in the news for weeks.

At the end of April, the national attention will dissipate and people outside the autism community will forget about the developmental disorder for the next 335 days. Most of those living day-to-day with autism will champion on — happy about the goodwill awareness brings, but struggling to fit into a society that doesn’t always understand their needs.

Awareness of autism is important, and increasing awareness is worth all the effort that goes into it each April. But acceptance is the real goal.

Autism awareness efforts are designed to provide insight into this complex disorder and how it affects life quality. They teach us that many stereotypes about autism (such as all those diagnosed never make eye contact, or that they can’t experience empathy) are not based in fact, and inform us that less than six of every 10 students with autism have a formal plan to help guide their transition from high school to adulthood. Awareness efforts help us know that while nearly half of those diagnosed with autism have average or above average intelligence, the majority of adults are unemployed or vastly underemployed.

Simply being aware of autism-related facts doesn’t fully solve the problems encountered by most affected by the disorder. However, greater acceptance into our communities, schools, personal relationships and places of employment is key to improved life quality for folks living with autism.

Business managers willing to employ workers who miss very little work but who may take longer to recognize nuanced, office-based social rules improve life quality. Valuing input from an employee who provided it via an augmented communication device improves life quality. Hiring applicants who demonstrate a profound attention to detail despite not hitting all the traditional markers of what’s considered a perfect job interview improves life quality. Those paradigm shifts and others improve life quality not only for those diagnosed with autism but for society as a whole.

Using the autism-related awareness facts we hear each April to create environments where individuals with autism feel accepted year-round as valued members of society is truly the best support one can offer.

I hope to see many of you at one or more of the awareness events scheduled for April. We’re going to learn plenty about autism, and we’ll grow together in our understanding. But remember: acceptance of neurodiversity makes us economically stronger and healthier as a society. So, wake up on May 1, 2019, and consider the role you’ll play in making our society more accepting of those diagnosed with autism.

Marc Ellison is executive director of the West Virginia Autism Training Center at Marshall University.