April 2: World Autism Awareness Day

Is April About Autism Awareness or Autism Acceptance?

April 2nd is the 14th annual World Autism Awareness Day, as designated by the United Nations. And the entire month of April is promoted by many organizations as a month devoted to those affected by autism spectrum disorder (ASD). According to Autism Speaks, it’s World Autism Month. The Autism Society of America is promoting April as Autism Acceptance Month. Still, the most-often seen label is “Autism Awareness Month.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), autism spectrum disorder affects 1 in 54 people. It impacts individuals and families. As the Autism Society of America puts it, “Autism is a complex, lifelong developmental disability that affects essential human behaviors such as social interaction, the ability to communicate ideas and feelings, imagination, self-regulation, and the ability to establish relationships with others.”

Why Is April 2nd World Autism Awareness Day?

The United Nations General Assembly declared April 2nd as World Autism Awareness Day in 2008 “to highlight the need to improve the quality of life of those with autism so they can lead full and meaningful lives as an integral part of society.” The stated intent is to reduce worldwide discrimination for people with neurological differences and remove obstacles to diagnosis and therapies. By the way, the UN only has seven officially designated health-related days. This year will be the 14th World Autism Awareness Day.

Long before the UN’s declaration, the Autism Society of America worked to have autism awareness officially recognized every year. In the 1970s, the Autism Society began a nationwide campaign to raise autism awareness. In 1972, it launched the first National Autistic Children’s week, which has evolved into April’s Autism Awareness Month. However, the organization prefers Autism Acceptance Month.

Just this year, the Autism Society of America began a campaign to local, state and federal leaders to officially name April “Autism Acceptance Month.” The group seeks support from members of Congress and the White House for the designation.

Other than the UN’s declaration for World Autism Awareness Day, there has never been an official designation for the month by government entities.

Christopher Banks, president and CEO of the Autism Society, said, “It’s not enough to know that someone has autism. We need to accept and push for inclusion so that individuals can fully participate in our social fabric.”

The Autism Society also has a special website dedicated to the month: autismawarenessmonth.org. The site has the following explanation for the group’s reason for embracing Autism Awareness Month:

“While we will always work to educate others about autism, words matter — the need for acceptance is greater than ever, as we strive for autistic individuals to live fully in all areas of life. The Autism Society understands the importance of fostering acceptance to ignite change through improved support and opportunities in education, employment, accessible housing, affordable health care and comprehensive long-term services and supports.”

The site also features digital resources for promoting the month and educating and sharing about autism spectrum disorder.

Autism Awareness versus Acceptance

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Autism Acceptance Month

Autism Acceptance Month has been used by other organizations informally for some time. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) has called April Autism Acceptance Month since 2011, saying, “Acceptance of autism as a natural condition in the human experience is necessary for real dialogue to occur.”

Other groups preferring the term “autism acceptance” to mark the month of April include the Administration for Community Living, Association of University Centers on Disabilities, Autistic Women and Non-Binary Network, Easter Seals, First Place AZ, National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities (NACDD), and The Arc.

Autism Speaks, the largest autism advocacy group in the U.S., has long been a proponent of April as a month focused on spreading information about autism. Rather than “awareness month,” the organization has transitioned to what it calls World Autism Month.

The group’s stated purpose for the month: “Throughout the month, we focus on sharing stories and providing opportunities to increase understanding and acceptance of people with autism, fostering worldwide support. This year, we are committed to keeping the spirit of the month alive, as now more than ever we know the autism community needs support, kindness and compassion.” 

Controversy Over Autism Speaks

Autism Speaks has been the subject of controversy in recent years with other autism advocacy groups and individuals. Its original mission statement of finding a cure for autism drew increasing criticism along with accusations of not properly representing people with autism and not including autistic people in its organizational structure.

However, recently Autism Speaks has made changes, notably dropping the mission of finding a cure. Their new mission statement, revised in 2016, states: “At Autism Speaks, our mission is to promote solutions, across the autism spectrum and throughout the life span, for the needs of people with autism and their families.”

The group continues to make other changes in order to better align itself with other members of the autism advocacy community. Along with changes to the logo, they appear to be changing their Light It Up Blue campaign, at least in name and hashtag, to #lightitupwithkindness. Changes to their mission, use of funds and inclusion of more people with autism in their ranks and activities are outlined on their For the Record page.

Perspectives on Autism Awareness Month

Other groups are also promoting April as World Autism Month, like the American Autism Association with their hashtag #myautism. Their site focuses on not just raising awareness but how people can take action. As they put it, “There is power in passion and one small act to better the autism community can have a ripple effect to foster a positive impact in our communities. We believe that by empowering others, we can help individuals with autism reach their full potential. “

In addition to raising money themselves, the American Autism Association site has tips for family members on creating a Facebook fundraiser as well as sharing photos and stories on social media.

Not everyone is happy about Autism Awareness Month. Many autism self-advocates publicly criticize the movement and are fighting for change toward more emphasis on acceptance rather than awareness. In a Washington Post article, Age of Autism author Kim Stagliano wrote:

“…illuminating the Eiffel Tower in blue does more to promote an organization than to improve the lives of autistic people and their caretakers. Celebrating talents does little to educate the public on the intense challenges of the diagnosis and the tough aspects of living with the disability. What the autism community needs isn’t a party but a sense of urgency and true crisis. They need advocates committed not only to getting them the acceptance they deserve, but also the critical help they require to survive, in the form of social programs, education, safety and employment opportunities.”

Stagliano goes on to suggest donating to local autism organizations that provide real help to families or volunteering to be an “autism buddy” is more important than wearing blue or holding an event. She also has practical advice for everyone:

“If your child has a classmate on the spectrum, invite that classmate to your child’s next birthday party. You know that cashier at the grocery store who doesn’t look at you as she takes care of your order? Smile at her, even if she does not smile back. The best way we can support Autism Awareness Month is to turn it into Autism Action Month. People with autism deserve a bright – not just a blue – future.”

But then there is the perspective of James Guttman, writing about his autistic son on the Autism Speaks blog site:

“I’m never offended by the concept of autism awareness. For many, outside my home, it’s the first time that someone really speaks to them openly about what autism is. When they do, those people have a chance to learn about people like my son and understand that he’s not all that different from them. When we increase their understanding of what autism is, it leads to their acceptance of people like him. Why? Because Lucas is an amazing human being if I do say so myself. Once you understand who he is, you have no choice to accept and love him.”

World Autism Awareness Day During the Pandemic

Turning back to the United Nations and its worldwide advocacy efforts, it plans a virtual event focusing on inclusion in the workplace this year. The event will include panel discussions featuring individuals with autism who have seen workplace challenges as well as new opportunities due to the pandemic forcing a surge in remote work.

In his 2021 message regarding World Autism Awareness Day, UN leader Secretary-General António Guterres said:

“The crisis has created new obstacles and challenges. But efforts to reignite the global economy offer an opportunity to reimagine the workplace to make diversity, inclusion and equity a reality.”

Whether you’re in favor of Autism Awareness or Autism Acceptance or World Autism Month, the fact that there is such lively debate across so many levels of our society suggests autism is receiving attention, awareness and, more often than before, acceptance.