Is Awareness Enough?

Here it is smack dab right in the middle of Autism Awareness Month (AAM), and I haven’t even blogged about it yet.  God knows Autism Tennessee is knee deep in AAM activities as are many of our County Contacts.  We are spreading awareness far and wide!  I know many of you are doing the same, whether it is at your school, your religious institution, or in your community; and we sincerely thank you for these efforts.

However, it occurs to me (and I’m certainly not the first one to say this) that maybe awareness isn’t enough anymore.  From where we started out 20+ years ago, when my son was first diagnosed and I first started learning about autism, it’s a brand new world.  I knew nothing about autism, and I wasn’t alone.  When I told someone my son had autism, there was a good chance that they would congratulate me on his “artistic” abilities!

Since then we’ve seen an explosion of information on ASDs across all media.  Movies and television shows frequently have characters that would be considered “on the spectrum.”  Though not always portrayed accurately, their inclusion into everyday culture has helped to expand people’s knowledge of the syndrome (and I think even the characters have become more “believable” in recent years).  There is so much information online that it’s virtually impossible not to find an article, website, or YouTube video on the subject, even if you’re not looking for it.  Now, if I mention autism to someone, nine times out of ten they understand what I’m talking about and know at least something about it.

So maybe it’s time we moved on to the next phase, the other “A” word, Acceptance.  One of the definitions of acceptance is “the action or process of being received as adequate or suitable, typically to be admitted into a group.”  A synonym of acceptance is “welcome.”  I think it’s time we start welcoming our children and adults with autism into society as a whole.  It is no longer acceptable to merely treat them as an offshoot of “normal” or equal but segregated. They need to be a part of everything that everyone else is connected to, whether that is in social, employment, or residential opportunities. Does this all sound familiar to you?  It should, because it is yet another civil rights movement!

Mainstreaming students with disabilities into regular education classrooms was the first step in this process, as it helped classmates to see the whole person, not just their disability.  Obviously, closing many of the institutions that housed entire generations of people with disabilities and integrating them back into their communities was another huge step.  But we must do so much more.  We must create affordable housing, employment options and transportation to access them, and develop community offerings that embrace and are accessible to everyone. Just like in every other civil rights movement, we need to integrate!

There are some signs that indicate a change in this direction.  Just today, I attended a meeting of various disability agency representatives and the Metro Transit Authority to discuss new ways to make mass transportation more accessible to all populations.  There are several new affordable housing projects in the works as well.  In the Autism Tennessee resources we now have many more employment and training options than in the past.  Several towns have started developing more in the way of recreational and social sharing opportunities.   Let’s continue down this path and keep our eyes and ears open for ever new ways of turning awareness into acceptance so that all may participate to the very best of their ability.  Let’s be welcoming.



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