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Beyond Awareness: On Autism Acceptance

Last Thursday, student Marshal Mitchell held a presentation on “Autism Acceptance” in the campus library. The presentation was support-oriented, focusing on introducing the audience to aspects of Autism while providing guidance for how to support Autistic people. It was a comprehensive explanation of various cultural traits, accepted symbols, and common behaviors associated with Autistic people, made by an actual Autistic person, complete with some voguing by Dr. Kris MacDonald.

Much of the presentation was about divorcing our perception of Autistic people from the common stereotype: a White man who is non-communicative and lacks empathy. In actuality, Autism occurs in all types of people. According to the CDC, about 1 in 36 children in 2020 were diagnosed with Autism. There is a higher proportion of non-White Autistic people than White Autistic people, and data on the prevalence of Autism is constantly evolving alongside the research and culture.

Within the Autistic community, various cultural practices have emerged. These are usually methods that Autistic people have developed to support themselves and others: tone indicators, support tools, and terminology like “masking” and “stimming.” Marshal’s presentation dives into many of these, serving to introduce the concepts to “Allistic” (non-Autistic) people while potentially introducing new concepts or tools to fellow Autistic people.

Many of the tools created within the Autistic community are rejections of harmful ideas put forward by the Allistic world. Organizations like Autism Speaks generate propaganda and so-called ‘educational’ resources from the perspective of Autism as a disease. Their 2009 “I Am Autism” advertisement illustrates their attitude towards it: a monster that destroys finances, families, and marriages, an insidious rot in the mind comparable to pediatric Cancer or AIDS, a disease that demands a cure, and an enemy that must be overcome. Naturally, this eliminationist rhetoric alienated the Autistic community, who now broadly reject the ‘puzzle piece’ symbology still prevalent in campaigns and events run by well-meaning Allistic people. Marshal’s presentation addresses the harm caused by Autism Speaks along with outdated concepts such as Asperger's Syndrome.

Asperger's Syndrome, named after pediatrician Hans Asperger, was thought of as a ‘softer’ version of Autism. It is no longer considered to be a legitimate diagnosis, and has not been present in the DSM-5 since 2013. The idea behind Asperger's Syndrome is tied with misconceptions of the Autism Spectrum, as detailed in Marshal’s presentation. Some may see Autism as a sliding scale from ‘less’ to ‘more’ Autistic. In reality, the Spectrum is better understood as a series of traits and support needs, including emotional regulation, special interests, and sensory sensitivities. Each Autistic person has a different relationship to each of these traits and needs, and cannot be easily categorized. There is no ‘one way’ to be Autistic.

Dr. Kris MacDonald, head of the college’s Center for Teaching Innovation and Excellence, spoke after Marshal’s presentation to highlight its application to educators. Many Autistic students are met with teachers who do not understand Autism. Activities like doodling, stimming, and using stim toys like fidget spinners or cubes during class can be seen as disruptive. But these are necessary for Autistic students to remain comfortable and engaged in class. “Masking,” or suppressing one’s Autistic traits, can be incredibly stressful, and encouraging masking in a classroom by demanding students remain motionless harms a student’s ability to engage with the material. In order for students to actively and enthusiastically participate in learning, educators must be flexible with their needs.

Marshal wants his audience to understand that “Autistic people don't choose to be the way they are. We're not doing it on purpose and we shouldn't have to change that to be shown the respect and compassion neurotypical people do. Autism is beautiful and complex but also wonderfully mundane.” With the complexity of Autism comes the complexity of self-diagnosis, a topic he hadn’t had time to include in the presentation. Marshal said that the resources available to many Autistic people, along with social stigma, make it difficult for one to seek an official diagnosis. Ultimately, he says, “if you feel as though Autism is the right label for you, and you've done all your research, and feel confident that accommodations for autistic folks will be helpful to you also, you are allowed to self-diagnose.”

As stated above, the main purpose of the presentation was to show how people can provide support to Autistic people. Marshal’s own journey towards advocacy was in finding ways to support his partner. “ I wanted to do every single thing I could to make him as comfortable as possible and learn the ins and outs of Autism, just for him,” he said in an interview. At the time, Marshal hadn’t realized that he was Autistic himself, “but when I found out everything suddenly made sense, and I wanted to make it easier for generations after me to find out about themselves and let others know how to support us!”

Like with many campaigns raising support for marginalized identities and illnesses, the focus on Autism can often be just about awareness. Being ‘aware’ of an issue is far easier and less meaningful than being accepting and supportive. As Marshal said during the presentation, “you being aware of me does not help me.” Instead, to help those in our community who are Autistic, we must be willing to provide support. A key takeaway from the presentation is that every Autistic person is different, and one should make sure to ask what particular support is helpful for an individual, rather than assuming what their Autism is like. Educators and fellow students alike would do well to listen to the advice of Autistic people like Marshal, so they can deepen their relationships with the Autistic people in their lives and better support a significant portion of our community.

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