April is Autism Awareness Month. But awareness isn’t always enough. Working with high school students with autism and other intellectual disabilities at Orange High School and taking a course on disability policy – IES 317 with Dr. Meghan Cosier – at Chapman has made me realize that there’s a necessity for awareness to be manifested into tangible and sustainable action. And while spreading awareness is a start, it shouldn’t be the only goal for this month and beyond.
To counter the stigma surrounding autism and the lack of representation and services available in schools, workplaces and the mainstream media, we must bridge the gap between what the majority assumes about the living realities of those on the autism spectrum.
Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden, is one of many young people striving to transform the trajectory of modern society’s future. Her relentless commitment to and passion for climate justice has sparked an international movement of school strikes all across the globe – including countries like Germany, Australia and Japan. She is also a nominee for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest since Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai.
Thunberg is driving action on combating climate change – but she’s also using her platform and leadership to shatter the stigma around autism spectrum disorders, mental illness and other “invisible” disabilities. If you look at her Instagram and Twitter, she refers to herself as a “climate activist with Asperger’s.”
On April 2, in honor of Autism Awareness Day, Thunberg posted about how she was proud to be on the autism spectrum. But she didn’t stop there. Instead, she transparently delved into the daily experiences of living with her multiple diagnoses, which include Asperger’s Syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Tourette’s Syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder, as well as dealing with depression and anxiety.
“For most it is an endless fight against schools, workplaces, and bullies,” she wrote, “But under the right circumstances, given the right adjustments it CAN be a superpower.”
So how can we as a society progress beyond just “awareness?”
We should start by prioritizing the voices of individuals and families in the autism community. There is diversity on the autism spectrum, and we need to engage with those on it to better understand their multifaceted perspectives and experiences. Organizations like the Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network (AWN) address the intersectionality of autism, and groups like Self Advocates Becoming Empowered (SABE) aim to provide equity in everyday tasks like voting assistance, transportation and housing, as a way of empowering the voices of those with autism and other disabilities.