This is what your awareness campaigns achieve

This is an edited version of a post originally published on Respectfully Connected

Recently, in a shop, I felt a tug at my hand. My son had something he wanted to ask me. I bent down, and he whispered his request.

I stood up, and asked the shop assistant his question. She answered, and then asked him a question. He hid behind me.

“He doesn’t always talk to other people,” I explained.

This answer satisfied the shop assistant. “Some kids are like that,” she said before continuing her conversation with me. I wonder what her response would have been if I had said “He’s Autistic”. Would she have been so accepting of him choosing not to talk to her?

Maybe she would have. There’s a chance that she wouldn’t have done the thing that people usually do when they hear the A-word. I don’t know her personally, so I can’t say for certain either way. I do know what most people do though. When I tell people that my son is Autistic, they usually react as though I’ve said something incredibly unpleasant. Their discomfort is tangible. They may make efforts to try and extricate themselves from the situation which are noticeable – even to someone like me, who often misses social cues.

This is what your fear-mongering awareness campaigns achieve. Articles that discuss autism solely from the perspective of parental hardship contribute as well. This is what articles written by ‘experts’, who have vested interests in profiting from the autism industry, achieve. None of that achieves acceptance. All of that raises awareness that we are different. Awareness makes people uncomfortable in our presence when they learn that our difference has a name attached to so much negativity.

I’m not about to pretend that we aren’t different. I have felt my difference keenly throughout my life. I know that we do things differently, and while I don’t often notice the looks that we get from strangers, I know that we still get them. It doesn’t worry me anymore. I’m used to getting looks from strangers, and I have started to believe that the looks that we get from others are more a reflection of them than it is of us. It took me some time to reach that point in my thinking. I’m grateful that I did because now I can explain that to my son and he can grow up without worrying about looks from strangers.

But what about Autistic children whose parents contribute towards the negative narratives? What about the children whose parents think that raising awareness is so important that it trumps their children’s rights to dignity and privacy? What about the children whose parents have been swayed by ‘experts’ with vested interests?

I hurt for those children. Their parents have been told that therapies aimed at normalisation are best for their children in order for them to fit in with others. I can understand how a parent would want that. Most parents want their children to be happy, and many of them might see fitting in as the key to their happiness.

Except it’s not.

Therapies aimed at normalisation give us the message that in order to be accepted, we need to work at fitting in by doing things in ways that are not compatible with our natural way of being.

This is what your awareness campaigns achieve. They tell us that if we could just be more like you, then we wouldn’t need acceptance. You wouldn’t have to do anything to accept us if we would all just conform. They tell us that if we were less different, we would fit in, and they place the burden of fitting in squarely on us.

We don’t need more awareness. We need people to start understanding that we’re happy being Autistic. It would be nice to allow us to be Autistic, and still be accepted and accommodated. I know that many people argue that awareness leads to acceptance and accommodation, but it hasn’t so far so will it ever? Is there a magical tipping point at which awareness becomes acceptance? I don’t think there is. I don’t see that raising awareness through fear mongering campaigns will ever naturally segue into acceptance.

We’re happy as we are. We don’t need more discomfort from strangers caused by increased awareness. We might not fit in, we might do things differently, but if you let us be, we can be happy without fitting in.