Every year, as April approaches, I always find myself feeling a bit off-colour. My mood dips, my anxiety spikes and I have a much shorter fuse than I usually do. For a long time, I never really understood why the month bothered me so much. Then, as March drew to a close, it hit me. Autism Awareness Day was coming. And I couldn’t be less enthusiastic for it if I tried.
As someone who is open about being autistic and writes in depth about neurodiversity, it doesn’t make sense, right? Surely, this is the time of year where I should feel most visible and supported by others.
Unfortunately that couldn’t be further from the truth. Autism Awareness Month – especially Autism Awareness Day – has become a physically and mentally exhausting chore for me and countless other autistic people.
One of the worst parts about Autism Awareness Day is the way that my timeline is suddenly flooded by people who have, apparently, realised autism exists for the first time. You’ll see them sharing rainbow puzzle pieces, inspiration porn, factually incorrect infographics and, most frustratingly, ‘personal’ accounts where they describe how passionately they feel about autism because their friend’s cousin’s boss’ dog also has it.
Society tells us that we should be grateful for these crumbs of recognition we get on social media, but it doesn’t actually mean anything if the person behind the post doesn’t genuinely care about the issues autistic people are facing.
The sad reality is that a lot of these people are engaging in performative activism: meaning that they are only posting about autism because they feel they ‘ought’ to since other people are doing it, or because they want to appear as a good person to their followers.
It might seem presumptive – or even bitter – to argue that some neurotypical people posting about Autism Awareness Day are doing it for their own social capital, but it’s clear as day if you consider their behaviour outside of the day they are told to care about autism.
For one, there’s been countless high-profile instances where we needed people’s support and allyship: in fighting against the deportation of autistic man Osime Brown, in stopping the harmful messages from Sia’s movie Music being spread, in holding the Government to account over issues like how changes to the Mental Health Act will impact autistic people already unfairly sectioned, or in how do not resuscitate notices during the COVID-19 crisis were issued on autistic patients without their consent.
All the people flooding my timeline suddenly caring about autism now only amplifies the deafening silence and lack of energy they had in supporting the autistic community at times where they really, desperately, needed their help and support. Where were you then?
Further to this, even the term itself, ‘Autism Awareness Day’, is something that some areas of the autistic community don’t relate to: preferring for it to be referred to as ‘Autism Acceptance Day’, because acknowledging the acceptance of autistic people isn’t enough – you need to be proactive in making changes in your own life and in supporting change on a wider institutional level to ensure that autistic people aren’t just visible, but accepted.
For example, this year, the UN’s theme for Autism Awareness Day is ‘Inclusion in the Workplace’. While ‘raising awareness’ of how to make workplaces more inclusive to autistic people is a nice idea, the fact that only 22% of autistic people are in some form of employment in the UK shows that the barriers autistic people face in the workplace are deeper, institutional ones that can only be lifted through decisive action rather than ‘awareness’.
Another one of the single biggest issues with Autism Awareness Day is the way in which autistic voices are barely even accounted for in the (very limited) dialogue and media coverage it gets. Instead, just like every other day of the year, we have people speaking over us and people speaking for us. Supposed ‘experts’ in autism who have no lived experience will be given a platform in order to spread the message about harmful practises like ABA (which is essentially conversion therapy for autistic people) and restraint.
Or, even worse, they will seek the expertise of the single biggest enemy to the autistic community. Autism Parents. Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that all parents of autistic children are harmful to the autistic community, but there is a very vocal and specific type of autism parent that is always amplified.
For example, in Giovanna Fletcher’s recent podcast, The Umbrella Academy’s Tom Hopper along with his wife, Laura, talk about their experiences of raising an autistic child. While this might sound great on paper, what this actually amounts to is an hour-long pity party where they centre themselves and their experiences while talking about how they are “mourning” their son for being autistic. Yet, their son Freddie is very much alive.
How are autistic listeners meant to respond to that? As an autistic person, what this podcast tells me is that I am a burden to my parents, and that I will always be compared and come second to the neurotypical ideal of me that my parents apparently “mourn”. Is being autistic a ‘death’ sentence wherein we are incapable of living life in the way other people are?
The problem with centring autism parents – or anyone neurotypical – in conversations about autism is that it only serves to further entrench harmful stereotypes and attitudes that will, in turn, continue to make autistic people’s lives harder. It’s also incredibly ironic that in the one month of the year where we’re meant to have a voice, we are once again ignored and marginalised.
Ultimately, while I am definitely not against Autism Awareness Day as a concept, I believe that it needs some serious reform before it can be allowed to continue. In its current form, it is nothing more than a vanity exercise to serve pretty much every demographic apart from the one it is apparently designed for.
But, most importantly, if you are someone who cares about autism issues and want to show your support during this time, we need that same energy all year round – not just in April.
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