Acceptance vs. Awareness

By Kassiane S. of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network

I often say awareness is the No Child Left Behind of advocacy. It’s a start, but by no means a finishing point we should be satisfied with. It is not until people understand and accept that we can say progress has been made.

What’s the difference, you ask? The gulf between awareness and understanding is as wide as any ocean. Awareness is all about creating a sense of urgency and fear. Awareness efforts present us as a problem to be solved, and yesterday. Awareness operates in stereotypes and soundbites, not real people. Awareness has no substance; it is but a tool to earn more money to fix us and to promote yet more awareness.

Awareness is easy. Acceptance requires actual work.

Acceptance comes from a place of understanding. Understanding isn’t generated by soundbites and poster children. Understanding takes work. To accept us, people first need to acknowledge us as individuals-as three dimensional, growing, developed characters. We are not all the same, and we are not but a collection of deficits. Acceptance is seeing that-and seeing that one’s distaste for an autistic person is more likely than not because of “autism”. Awareness tells you that anything objectionable about us is “autism”, but that explanation is clear, simple, and wrong.

Acceptance requires facing that which makes you uncomfortable about us, thinking about why it makes you uncomfortable, and confronting any prejudice at the root of that discomfort. To accept us is to make a conscious effort to overcome that prejudice, to recognize that your discomfort with our differences is far more your problem to overcome than ours.

Acceptance and awareness come from vastly different mindsets. Awareness seeks to highlight how Other we are and emphasizes the differences and distance between our ways of being. Acceptance looks at commonalities we share and at the strength inherent in diversity. Those who seek awareness ultimately have the goal of bridging the gap by making us more like them. They’re aware that we are the problem, and they are aware that the onus is on us to be fixed. Awareness is all about the problems and the difficulties, usually as experienced by the neurotypical majority of folks who are wanting to make everyone know. Awareness makes sure the world knows how difficult we make it for those around us.

Acceptance, though. Acceptance says “you are you, and that’s pretty awesome. I am me, and that’s pretty awesome.” Acceptance seeks to meet us where we are, or at least far closer to equitably than awareness does. Those who accept are not seeing us as projects or as charity cases. Those who accept us don’t “tolerate” us-they embrace us, differences and all. People who are aware care about us in spite of our quirks and challenges. The people who are accepting who I know care about me in part because of my quirks and challenges. They recognize that you cannot excise my difficulties and oddities without excising a large part of the whole package that is “me”.

Awareness says the tragedy is that I exist as I am. Acceptance says that the tragedy would be trying to make me any other way. In this way, it makes complete sense that people who have awareness as their main goal would say that I “have autism”, whereas those who would agree that I “am autistic” are those who work for or are achieving acceptance.

I know a lot of people who are aware. Awareness, as I said, is easy. I could easily get a couple hundred people to wear a puzzle ribbon & say it’s “for autism.” It’s not hard at all to get people to recognize a word and a few little associated factoids. People know a few autism factoids, usually about children and about head-banging or poop smearing, perhaps about a pop culture portrayal. Probably enough to tell autistic adults that we look normal, but not enough to know that everything they think they know about autism is wrong.

I know people who are accepting, too. They had to work a lot harder than pinning on a ribbon and being told that children with autism may not speak but may bang their heads and are aloof or whatever the popular doom and gloom is this year. Becoming aware is a one-time thing, more or less. Even spreading awareness doesn’t involve a whole lot of thinking. But acceptance is a constant process.

Acceptance of autistic people, like acceptance of pretty much all people, involves moving past surface impressions. It involves trying to understand us, trying to know who we are, not just what our operating system is. People who accept us-or at least those who accept me-have made a conscious effort to not just know what I do, but to relate to why I do it. I don’t flap my hands to be embarrassing, I flap my hands because I am happy (usually) so flapping is a good thing. If I’m being unnaturally still and subdued, that isn’t “good sitting” or “controlling autistic behaviors”, it is a sign of being deeply overwhelmed-the more normal appearing actions are known by those who accept and embrace me as being not good things. Acceptance is taking into account not what “people” do in a situation, but what I do, and recognizing that as valid. Acceptance is joining in my oddities instead of condemning them. People who accept us would much rather see us happy and stimmy and obviously different than miserably quiet and blending in. Acceptance is about us belonging, as we are, to the ranks of fully human people.

I wish to live in a world where acceptance is not just the goal, but the reality. I want to live in a world where someone talking in the deficit model of awareness is regarded as uncomfortably out of touch with how things should be. This is my world too, and I want it to be filled with people who know that I am autistic and fantastic, not that I “have autism” and that is tragic. In my ideal world, flapping will be just as acceptable as smiling, earplugs will be a normal sight, AAC devices will be common and everyone will know how to converse with AAC users. In that world, neurodiversity will be just another way that people are unique, and everyone will agree that diversity is part of what makes the world so beautiful.

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