Paula Durbin-Westby is an adult autist, an advocate, a writer, blogger, and mother. She writes extensively about autism on her blog – Autism Acceptance Day. I had planned to do a series throughout the month of April of Autistic writers discussing autism, “awareness” and acceptance, which I planned to submit to the Huffington Post. However, HuffPo does not take “guest bloggers” and as I hadn’t gotten permission beforehand, this piece from Paula was never printed. I am printing it here, instead:
This article introduces a new celebration for the month of April: Autism Acceptance Day. First, the background. Autism Awareness month has been around for quite awhile. Unfortunately, much of the deluge of “awareness” has been demeaning and even discriminatory. Many Autistics have written pieces on the theme “April is the cruelest month.” Parents talk about wanting to turn off the TV during April so their Autistic children will not have to see the alarmist statistics and “medical mystery” reporting. Autistic friends, weaving their way through a barrage of autism “warning” signs placed prominently on campus, talk about how they can’t wait for April to be over.
In 2008, the UN declared April 2 World Autism Awareness Day. A year later, in September 2009, during an autism conference the UN showed a video called “I Am Autism,” which portrays autism as a demonic persona that threatens harm to parents and families. In one section, voices chime “We are the United Nations,” showing people from many nations who will stand up to “autism.” It was outrageous. The United Nations, by showing this film, violated its own principles in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The UN wrote in Article 8, and I quote, “As a change of perceptions is essential to improve the situation of persons with disabilities, ratifying countries are to combat stereotypes and prejudices and promote awareness of the capabilities of persons with disabilities.
Against this backdrop, I organized the first Autism Acceptance Day in 2011. Autism Acceptance Day was to be everything that Autism Awareness Month was not. Rather than “awareness” that insults and even damages the life chances of Autistic people, I promoted complete acceptance, not just mere tolerance. As Autistic activist Nick Walker puts it, “If it doesn’t involve acceptance of autism, and acceptance of autistic people as autistic people, you don’t get to call it “autism acceptance.” I was tired of my friends being hurt, and dismayed at the media and parent- and researcher-led autism organizations portraying autism and Autistic people in what my nine-year old calls a “despicatizing” light.
Autism acceptance means an active acceptance of neurodiversity. Neurodiversity sometimes gets a bad rap, but it’s really fairly simple: neurodiversity encompasses all neurologies, from “typical” people to those who have a variety of neurologically-based differences and disabilities. We support all people with disabilities, even though our emphasis is on neurology. We assert the worth and dignity of every person, no matter what their disability or level of disability, including people with significant disabilities. Our aim is not to gloss over the very real difficulties that people with neurologically-based disabilities face. Our focus is on access to services, supports, education and employment opportunities. We support the development of communication systems, a high priority for Autistics, some of whom do not speak, and many of whom do not have reliable access to language-based communication at times.
The first year, Autism Acceptance Day was primarily an online, Facebook event. I started a blog so that people who were not on Facebook could read about Autism Acceptance Day and participate. Over 1000 people signed up for the Facebook event. This year, as more people made plans and expanded on the idea, I wrote – “It’s time to take back April!” ASAN did a series on its blog and there were other events and activities.
Like any other community, the Autistic community and our supporters have developed expressions of community involvement. Some events are celebratory; some are not. On March 30, people attended candlelight vigils to mourn and remember people with disabilities who have been murdered by family members or caregivers. The vigil effort was organized by Zoe Gross. An online vigil was implemented as well. As with other minority communities, a sense of identity, pride, and accomplishment, as well as a time to pause and reflect, is a way to build upon our strengths, learn to work together to promote our own interests and concerns, and ultimately to foster a greater societal acceptance of people with disabilities including autism. Sadly, the day after the vigil, Daniel Corby, age 4, was murdered. We still have much to do toward acceptance of Autistic people.