“We think differently and that’s not a bad thing”: Autism Acceptance Month 2022.

Since 2011, April is annually recognized as Autism Acceptance Month (previously Autism Awareness Month). According to the 2021 10th anniversary Autistic Self-Advocacy Network’s statement, “Autism Acceptance Month was created by and for the autistic community to change the conversation around autism, shifting it away from stigmatizing ‘autism awareness’ language that presents autism as a threat to be countered with vigilance.” Autism acceptance is about equitable belonging, not apathetic tolerance or self-righteous saviorism.

What is autism? It’s a developmental disability (known in the DSM as Autism Spectrum Disorder – ASD) that some people are born with and live with for their whole lives. It’s heritable, not caused by vaccines (a popular misconception in some circles); it can’t be cured, reversed, or fixed (what Applied Behavioral Analysis—ABA—attempts to do), and while it can be masked to varying degrees, it is a permanent neurotype that affects everything about a person, from the senses to social interactions to emotions. The World Health Organization said in March 2022 that “about 1 in 100 children has autism” but that while “characteristics may be detected in early childhood, … autism is often not diagnosed until much later.” 

Autism is relatively common, and it’s very likely you have known many autistic people, diagnosed or not, over the course of your life; as such, it’s very important to understand this disability. Julianne Anemone, an autistic student here at Eastern, said that while mental health awareness for more common things like anxiety and depression is improving, “with autism [there’s a] spectrum of symptoms … it’s complicated[;…] no two [autistic] people are going to be similar.” Dr.  Thompson, the director of the College Success Program here at Eastern that exists to assist autistic students, said “because autism affects many aspects of how a person interacts with the world, it looks very different from one person to another.” Justin Rittwage, another autistic student at Eastern, said that the most important thing non-autistic people need to know is that “[autistic people] think differently and that’s not a bad thing.” Dr. Thompson also noted that it’s further important to know that the commoly-used “high-functioning [and] low-functioning [spectrum] is a simplistic and inaccurate way of looking at [autism]…some people are able to adapt well to their environment, but other people don’t see the effort that goes into that;” i.e. there’s huge amounts of effort to live and function to any degree for all autistic people.

There are also many misconceptions about autism. Dr. Thompson said that some of those misconceptions are that “autism looks a certain way, or that once you know one [autistic] person’s strengths and weaknesses [you can] apply [that] to others… One that bothers me the most is that autistic people aren’t capable of empathy…[there’s a] range of levels of empathy within the autistic community just as there is a range of empathy among allistics.” Rittwage recounted that “the biggest misconception is that we’re not intelligent. That’s how I felt my guidance counselors treated me in high school, and I wasn’t able to excel or reach my full potential until college… I didn’t think I was going to be able to perform as well as I did and I’m blown away by that.” Anemone said that “when most people think about autism they think about …[dramatized]examples like Shaun from The Good Doctor, [and] they think [other autistic people] aren’t really capable of doing much, but that is only really [the case] for the severe[ly disabled].”

Regarding support, Dr. Thompson noted carefully that “lots of neurotypical people are trying to do good and doing it from their own perspective rather than from the perspective of autistic individuals.” And it’s important to remember that many autistic people, especially those assigned female at birth and people of color, are un- or late-diagnosed—“signifiers of autism aren’t nearly as clear” due to different socializations than the DSM accounts for, which is “geared towards” white autistics assigned male at birth, Dr. Thompson continued. Anemone agreed, saying that “it’s important for autistic women to speak out about their symptoms, because autism is diagnosed a lot more in men compared to women.” And being undiagnosed “is problematic because it affects self-understanding and how [many] support systems and accommodations [you have access to],” said Dr Thompson. Anemone said “[it’s] important that people with … autistic symptoms … get help early enough they could also potentially have success in life.” Both Anemone and Rittwage said that CSP and other accommodation services at Eastern was the reason they chose this university. “Eastern has a pretty good autism program and that’s why I chose [it]…When I was choosing colleges I was only looking at autism programs…I also know that CCAS is a really good resource as well…[it’s a] robust system and it definitely has helped me out a lot, both academically and socially,” remembered Anemone; Rittwage agreed and said “[the] CSP program is there, that’s why I came here and transferred in; I needed a little bit more support…at my other college, they didn’t have that.” 

Autism is an enormous spectrum of different symptoms, comorbidities, disabling factors and experiences; no two autistic people are the same. It’s deeply personal, and while there is an autistic community—since the world is set up around neurotypicals, you can find the people whose brains work similarly—it can be hugely important to an autistic person’s sense of self. Anemone remembered, “when I was younger I was more severely autistic, [and] luckily because my mom noticed…I was able to get the services I needed to be able to get to where I am now. I want to be an inspiration for other people…I hope to be an advocate, and say that autistic people can do anything that other people can do.” And Rittwage said, “I’ve heard people say that they want to cure autism, and I would not want to give it away in a million years, never. You have struggles and hurdles, but it’s a specific life experience. If I was neurotypical, I wouldn’t have to jump as many hurdles and I wouldn’t be who I am today.”