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A Shift from Autism Acceptance to Appreciation

A Shift from Autism Acceptance to Appreciation

The Language we use is important!

An inspiring guest blog by neurodivergent self-advocate Ben VanHook. 

The language we use within the disability and neurodivergent community is very important. Whilst some might view various phrases as “interchangeable” with merely semantic effects, the words and phrases we use can have massive implications. 

family eating ice cream togetherFor example, some people might refer to their child as having high or low-functioning autism. Some might even refer to their child as having “severe or mild” autism as if it is a kind of food flavoring. Describing autism as such can be very damaging to the individual, as it sends the message that a person might not need any support. I have often been called “high functioning” because I was a strong student. In being labeled as such, people disregarded the other non-academic related challenges I face throughout my day-to-day life, such as conversing with others, cleaning, organizing, and planning. 

Neurodiverse and Neurodivergent are not the same things!

Some people might also use the terms “neurodiverse” and “neurodivergent” interchangeably. To clarify, everyone is “neurodiverse.” This phrase refers to the fact that everyone’s mind is inherently different and unique. “Neurodivergent,” on the other hand, refers to a certain population that thinks in ways society perceives as “diverging from the norm.” This can include autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, ADD, etc… Put simply, everyone is neurodiverse, but not everyone is neurodivergent. To conflate “neurodivergence” and “neurodiversity” is common, but, unfortunately, can have very negative implications. 

How many of you have heard people say, “We are all a little bit autistic?”, or, “We all mask a little bit?”. These phrases might be used in an effort to show compassion or understanding towards neurodivergent individuals. Unfortunately, these phrases too, have negative ramifications for our neurodivergent community. It is akin to saying “All Lives Matter” for a few reasons:Father and Son high-five each other

  • It diverts from the very real LIVED EXPERIENCE of autistic individuals.
  • It destroys or diminishes our unique shared history and historical challenges as disabled individuals. Neurotypicals were never institutionalized. Until recently, the government has never controlled a neurotypical woman’s body. Neurodivergent women, however, have had government control over their bodies since 1929, when Buck v Bell was ruled upon (“three generations of imbeciles are enough").
  • It strips us of our community and identity by inviting everyone in.
  • It ignores, dismisses, minimizes, and trivializes the very real challenges facing autistic individuals.
  • It equates our challenges as THE SAME as those neurotypicals face, despite the fact the disability unemployment rate is around 30-40%, and unemployment for autistics, specifically, is around 80% in the United States.
  • It excuses inaction to combat these challenges (“Well, SHE didn’t need a calculator, why do you?”).

Appreciation and Acceptance are different, too

Lastly, and I want to end on a positive note, I have been pushing for society to transition away from the era of autism acceptance and into the era of autism appreciation. I have always seen acceptance and appreciation as being different. This is not just a semantic difference. Just like autism awareness and autism acceptance are different, so are acceptance and appreciation. Acceptance is the bare minimum whereas appreciation is the goal. 

  • Acceptance is hiring because you have to.
    • Appreciation is hiring because you want to.
  • Acceptance is speaking on behalf of neurodivergent individuals.
    • Appreciation is empowering neurodivergent people to live a life of self-determination.
  • Acceptance is helping communities survive.
    • Appreciation is helping communities thrive.
  • Awareness is the acknowledgment that bridges between neurotypicals and neurodivergents exist. Acceptance is tolerating the fact these bridges exist. Appreciation is actively taking steps to strengthen these bridges between the neurodivergent and neurotypical communities. 

How do we transition into Autism Appreciation?

With this being said, how can we transition into an era of autism appreciation? There are many ways in which we can make this change!

  • Engage with the autistic community.
    • Attend webinars and panels featuring autistic speakers, listen to podcasts featuring autistic guests, read blog posts written by autistic authors, and follow autistic content creators on social media.
  • Check out the resources on autism-friendly websites (e.g., Organization for Autism Research, Asperger's Autism Network, Autistic Self-Advocacy Network).
  • Donate to autism-friendly and neuro-affirming organizations.
  • Utilize Universal Design for Learning in the education and employment spaces.
  • Ensure your website and graphics are accessible.
  • Listen to autistic family members, peers, colleagues, and friends.

Author’s note:

Ben VanHookBen VanHook is an expert on the autistic employee and student experience, who has spoken at Stanford and has been featured in programs from PBS to the New York Times. He has authored articles for the American Psychological Association and advised groups from the open mainframe project to Partners in Promise. Ben is currently a Master's student studying public policy at George Mason University, with the hopes of reforming employment and education policy to make both domains more inclusive for neurodivergent individuals.