Friday, April 1, 2016

Despite Everything, I Don't Hate April

The month of April has always held a special place in my heart. Spring is fresh in the air, it's still early in the year but not too much so, and the weather is pretty cooperative in the not-too-hot-but-not-too-cold way. But it's most likely due to the fact that it's my birth month, as I was born on the eighth. In fact, April holds a lot of birthdays of people I love - one of my closest friends' birthday is four days before mine, my father's is towards the end of the month, and my late grandmother's was six days after mine. It's always been a month of celebration in my life, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

But since becoming more involved in the autism world, I see people who don't like April as much as I have. That's because April has somehow been deigned "Autism Awareness Month" and with it comes a lot of feelings on how it's handled. But in spite of all the issues that come with the concept of "autism awareness", I honestly can't bring myself to hate April because of it.

I know that looks like a controversial statement from an autistic person. Just hear me out.

Do I have an issue with autism awareness? It's kinda complicated, but if I had to simplify it'd be "yes" and "no". As far as the "no" goes, I understand why awareness is needed. If you're neurotypical and able-bodied, you don't tend to think about autism unless you're involved with it professionally and/or personally. Like Black History Month and International Women's Day (which in of themselves come with their own completely understandable issues), Autism Awareness Month gives people the opportunity to learn about something they'd never otherwise know about and get some basic understanding of it. And the way the United Nations has handled it recently has grown to be more accepting of autism as a whole. Last year's topic handled unemployment among autistic adults and came with some cool initiatives. This year's topic is inclusion and neurodiversity, featuring Neurotribes author Steve Silberman as the keynote speaker with a discussion with Autistic Self-Advocacy Network founder Ari Ne'eman. This shift from basic facts to real issues and inclusion makes me hopeful in how autism is discussed in the larger conversation.

But in terms of the "yes" part, it's pretty simple - awareness is just awareness. As I said last year, awareness is an absurdly simple concept: "Hey everyone! Did you know there's a thing called autism and it's a neurological disorder and disability that affects social development? Well, now you know!" That concept can either be spun towards the positive or the negative, and it's very easy for people to gravitate towards the negative perspectives of autism. Autism has been used as a scare tactic to get people to not give their kids proper vaccinations, played as a biomedical condition for people to try inhumane "treatments" to rid their kids of "toxins" caused by autism, and has been portrayed as something robbing people of their innate humanity due to difficulties of traditional forms of human communication. And with those negative messages sent about autism, it's very easy for people to come to the conclusion that autism is something to be "cured" or eliminated in the same vein as HIV/AIDS or cancer. While some autistic people would welcome a possible cure to deal with some aspects autism takes in them, the idea of a cure to many is a major disservice, if not downright insulting. Despite it being complicated, cure talk steers the conversation away from including autistic people in the world to autism as something needing to be "fixed" on a neurological level. And no one wants to be seen or treated as a problem.

Despite this negative perception of autism so ingrained into the collective consciousness, I do see a glimmer of hope in eradicating this horrible point of view by the autistic community. In the face of the misinformation that can be spread about autism, the autistic community responds to "Autism Awareness Month" with "Autism Acceptance Month". Instead of medicalizing and fear-mongering autism, autistic people and our allies take April as an opportunity to spread accurate, positive, and respectful information and foster love and affirmation of autism in the process. Colors like red and the rainbow infinity symbol are employed to promote a universal understanding rather than the bare bones information. Autism Acceptance Month is an opportunity to promote autistic people as a valid perspective worth listening to, and I'm completely on board with that. I've always believed that respectful education and promoting marginalized voices in doing so is always the way to counter misinformation and the often accompanying bigotry that comes with it, and Autism Acceptance Month is a prime example of doing that and doing it well.

So no, the month of April does not send me into a frenzy of "OMG THIS IS THE WORST THING EVAH FOR AUTISM". Yes there's a lot of damage that can be done with the concept of "awareness", but I have a lot of hope in the growing trends of acceptance and respect when discussing autism in the past several years. I'm beginning to see a shift towards a more inclusive and meaningful discussion in how we can make autistic people's lives better. It's a rebirth of the autism discussion, fitting pretty damn well with my overall perception of April being a time of birth. And I find that's worth some kind of celebration as opposed to damnation.

Plus on a selfish note, I can never hate April as an April baby. Give me that at least. :P

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