The Problem With Awareness

What do you think of when you hear of campaigns such as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Glaucoma Awareness Month, or National Stroke Awareness Month? Obviously, these are tragic things that need to be prevented. Now what about Autism Awareness Month? In our culture, we have Black History Month and LGBT Pride Month to celebrate different cultures, but yet Autism is treated as something which needs to be cured. Autistics tend to view autism as an integral part of who we are. Imagine what it’s like to have an entire month dedicated to campaigns to “fix” people such as yourself, as if your very existence was a problem to be solved.

Autism is as old as humanity itself, but widespread recognition of it is quite new. It wasn’t discovered until 1943. Since then, as awareness has rapidly grown, so too have two other things: the number of people diagnosed, and stigma of autism. Given the ways society describes us, the fear of autism shouldn’t be a surprise. Think about how autism is usually described: “Autism epidemic.” “Autism Spectrum Disorder.” “Diagnosed.” We are described as “having autism,” which is used in much the same way that someone “has the flu” or “has cancer.” Discourse surrounding autism is saturated in the language of disease and deficit.

So, what happens when a group of people are described by society in such ways? History already provides some examples. Like autistics, LGBT people have also been described by society with the language of pathology, and there are some important parallels in the experiences of both groups. Both have been in the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. LGBT people have been subjected to so called “conversion therapy.” This is an abusive practice that employs behaviorist techniques first developed for use on autistic children, in a similarly abusive therapy known as “Applied Behavioral Analysis.” People from both groups have been disowned, abandoned, or murdered by people who’ve been taught by society that what they are is something that needs to be cured.

In some parts of the world, society is finally beginning to learn that acceptance of LGBT people has far better outcomes than being treated like a disease. Yet for the most part, society has yet to take such an enlightened view of autistics and other neurodivergent people. This awareness without acceptance has had some tragic results. Here are a few examples:

The Neurodiversity Paradigm

Clearly, awareness alone has not been working out so well. We need to move beyond autism awareness to autism acceptance. To do that, we need to change how we think about the subject.

Consider the following statements: “I am proud to be autistic”, and “autism is a disability”. Does that sound like a contradiction? If so, you may believe in what is known as the medical model of disability. This is the notion that there is some hypothetical “normal” state, and that every physical or cognitive difference that causes someone to deviate from this norm is something that needs to be fixed or cured.

The alternative to this is the social model of disability. This is the idea that while some differences may cause individual limitations or impairments, “disability” is something that is done to a person when society fails to include them despite those differences. For example, blind and visually impaired people, the deaf and hard of hearing, and those with mobility impairments can all be fully functional members of society. However, when society refuses to meet their needs, they become disabled. This can happen when public places don’t have braille signage, when communication happens only verbally and not in writing or sign language, and when places aren’t wheelchair accessible. When society makes such decisions, it disables those who need these accommodations.

Under the social model, autism is also a disability. Like anyone else, we have our own sets of strengths and weaknesses. However, due to the medical model and decades of fearmongering awareness campaigns, society all too often refuses to accept and accommodate us. In this way, society disables us. For society to move towards acceptance, it must adopt the social model of disability.

Another concept that is important for autism acceptance is neurodiversity. This is the idea that there is no “normal” mode of human cognition, but that autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, etc are all part of the normal spectrum of human diversity, just as ethnic background, sexual preference, and gender identity are all normal parts of human diversity.

Autistic people have always been here. History is full of examples of artists and scientists who were likely autistic, such as Alan Turing, Einstein, and Mozart. We as a society wouldn’t be where we are without the contributions of autistic people in the arts and sciences. Based on current estimates, we are about as common as redheads. Given how important autism has been to society, it makes no sense to view it as a defect instead of a natural part of human diversity.

Some Tips For Supporting Autistic People

In addition to the social model of disability and the neurodiversity paradigm, I’d like to leave you with a few practical tips for how to support the autistic people in your life:


In conclusion, autistic people don’t need a cure or your pity, and we’ve had more than enough so called awareness. What we need is understanding, respect, and acceptance.