Autism Acceptance Month

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A Reflection on 25 Years of Progress

As we embark on Autism Acceptance Month, it’s essential to explore the journey of understanding and supporting autistic individuals. Having spent 25 years working with autistic children, I’ve witnessed firsthand the evolution of attitudes, approaches, and understanding surrounding autism. In this blog post, I’ll delve into the transformative shifts that I’ve made with my vocabulary, thoughts and teaching approaches. By looking back at these areas I hope to help promote a better understanding of autism and encourage acceptance and support for autistic children and adults. We’ll explore five key areas that are central to fostering genuine acceptance and inclusion for autistic individuals.

1. From Awareness to Acceptance: Puzzle Piece and Infinity Symbol

I remember when I was teaching at the elementary level from 1999 through 2013, we would promote autism awareness through projects and activities using the puzzle piece symbol.  At the time, it was used to symbolize autism awareness and support for autistic children. We proudly displayed puzzle pieces painted by children with information about autism on the walls of the lobby. But, things started to change around 2018 or 2019. That’s when we started hearing about the switch to the infinity symbol. I think that like anything, it took a while to sink in. We had been using the puzzle piece for so long that we really had to learn and understand the WHY behind this change. But then it clicked! We were hearing more and more from autistic adults…thanks to social media…and we had the chance to learn from them! 

Along with the shift from the puzzle piece to the infinity symbol, came the transition from awareness to acceptance. This represents a paradigm shift in how we perceive autism. Traditionally symbolized by that puzzle piece, the concept of autism awareness often carried connotations of incompleteness or a missing piece. However, many in the autistic community have embraced the infinity symbol as a more inclusive representation of neurodiversity, emphasizing acceptance and unity in diversity. By moving beyond mere awareness to genuine acceptance, we affirm the inherent value and dignity of autistic individuals.

2. Terminology: “With Autism” vs. “Autistic”

One big thing that has changed over the past 25 years is the language we use when referring to autistic folks. I have to say that this one was really hard for me. With the tiny bit of information we were give about autism in undergrad and grad school, it was engrained into us to use “person-first” language. If we said someone was “autistic”, it would have been a very insensitive way to speak about them.

So, imagine my surprise in 2019 when a parent of one of my 4 year old students wanted us to write into the IEP that he would be referred to as “autistic” vs. a boy “with autism”. It was hard to comprehend at the time. That was the first moment that I learned about the switch to identify first language. It was very difficult to say “autistic child” for a year or two. Now, it flows off my tongue no problem. It is important to note that we should ask what each individual prefers if they are able to tell us.  

Language plays a powerful role in shaping our perceptions and attitudes towards autism. The debate between “with autism” and “autistic” reflects that broader discourse on identity-first versus person-first language. While some prefer person-first language to emphasize the individual over the condition (“person with autism”), most autistic self-advocates prefer identity-first language, embracing autism as an integral aspect of their identity (“autistic person”). By respecting individuals’ preferences and agency in how they define themselves, we honor their autonomy and dignity.

3. AAC Evolution: From PECS to Core, Fringe, and Robust AAC

Another area that has changed a lot in the last 25 years is the evolution of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) strategies. New technologies that have become more accessible have transformed communication support for autistic individuals. The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) once stood as the gold standard, but its limitations in promoting autonomy and comprehensive communication have become more apparent. This is another area that I made the shift with more recently. I was trained in PECS early on and it really was the only accessible form of AAC for many years. One of the issues for me was that we were not able to implement it exactly how we were trained because there are never enough adults in a classroom to provide the amount of prompting that they want you to do.

Today, we embrace a more nuanced approach, incorporating core + fringe communication books and robust AAC devices. These devices are much more accessible now. Gone are the days of the clunky Dynovox that costed thousands of dollars…which is why everyone continued to use PECS instead. Now we also know that there are no pre-requisites for using a robust AAC device. We know more about modeling without expectation…meaning that we model the language using the device and don’t require the child to imitate us or use their words to gain access to an item. For tons of fantastic information about this topic, check out Rachel Madel. She is an SLP who specializes in AAC.

3. Shifting Approaches: From Compliance-Based to Connection-Based

Our understanding of autism intervention has evolved significantly since the 1940s. In 1943, Dr. Leo Kanner’s groundbreaking observations of children previously labeled as having mental retardation shed light on what we now understand as autism. These children displayed challenges in speech development, social interaction, and exhibited repetitive behaviors. Kanner’s work marked the early recognition of autism, yet the treatment options were severely limited. Many autistic children were secluded in institutions, while prevailing misconceptions, such as the “refrigerator mother” theory, placed blame on the autistic child’s mother. Dr. Bruno Bettleheim blamed the mothers for being cold and uncaring, and that stuck. Now, this might seem like it took place a long time ago, but I recently met a woman who is around 65 years old. Her autistic son is 35 years old. She told me that the doctors told her that she was a refrigerator mom. This was in the 1990’s!!

Despite significant strides in understanding autism’s genetic and environmental origins over the past several decades, misconceptions persist, and parents still endure undue blame and shame for their children’s autism diagnosis. This history underscores the importance of ongoing advocacy, education, and empathy in fostering true acceptance and support for autistic individuals.

There has also been a transition from compliance-based to connection-based approaches. Historically,  not only were mothers unfairly blamed for their children’s autism, perpetuating harmful stereotypes and stigma, but autistic children and adults were subjected to abusive “therapy”.  

Today, we recognize the importance of nurturing genuine connections and understanding in supporting autistic individuals. We are starting to recognize that autism is another neurotype…the way they are wired is different from a neurotypical brain. That is not bad or wrong, it’s just different. This world truly does need all kinds of minds, so it’s time to embrace those differences.

4. Amplifying Autistic Voices: The Power of Listening

Listening to autistic voices is the most important peice when it comes to shaping our understanding and approach to autism acceptance. Autistic self-advocates offer invaluable insights into their experiences, challenges, and aspirations. By amplifying these voices, we challenge stereotypes, dismantle stigma, and foster a more inclusive and empathetic society. Whether through blogs, social media, or advocacy initiatives, autistic individuals contribute to a richer and more diverse narrative of autism—one characterized by strength, resilience, and authenticity.

As we navigate the complexities of autism acceptance, I encourage everyone to have an open mind when it comes to new ways of thinking about autism and new strategies that come our way because of that. From challenging outdated stereotypes and approaches to embracing diverse communication strategies, each step we take brings us closer to a future where autistic individuals are valued, respected, and empowered to thrive. 

This Autism Acceptance Month, let us celebrate the unique strengths and contributions of autistic individuals, recognizing that our differences enrich the fabric of our humanity. Together, let us build a world where acceptance knows no bounds—a world where every individual, regardless of neurodiversity, is embraced for who they are.

Autism Acceptance Month Resources:

The Different Ways We Communicate Children’s Book by Tara Phillips

Identity First vs Person First Language Blog Post

Autistic Definition and Prevalence Blog Post

Episode 12 – The Autism Little Learners Podcast – Autism Awareness Month vs Autism Acceptance Month

Cari Ebert, SLP – The SLP Talkshow Podcast (Episode 52)

Episode 56: Autistic Adult: Diagnosed At 53 Years Old with Anton Dabbs

If you use visual supports in your classroom or home, you are going to want to sign up for this free Visual Supports Starter Set ASAP! Click here to have one sent to your inbox. Also, be sure to read more about visual supports and how they can help autistic children here.

Visual supports starter set

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