It’s the 30th of April, and another Autism Awareness month, the annual marathon of campaign, debate, and fundraising, is drawing to a close.
Every year I’m struck by how far the conversation has moved forward in a short space of time. This April, the movement towards autism acceptance (evolving out of awareness) has been striking. Awareness has brought us a long way, but it’s only a starting point towards actual change. You can be aware of something without taking any positive action. And you can be aware of someone’s differences or difficulties without doing anything to accommodate them, too.
We’ve all heard by now that “if you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met… one autistic person.” There’s infinite human variety in how each person is made up, how they were brought up, and how they show up. This is as true for autistic people as it is for any other group. I’ve particularly enjoyed friends on Twitter driving the point home by adding “Awareness Month” to their names this year (e.g. “Jane Smith Awareness Month.”) Awareness is passive, even indifferent. Being aware that an individual exists gives little insight into their experience.
Acceptance takes us to a personal level. It asks us to nail our colours to the mast and declare – are we in, or are we out? Do we accept that autism exists, and are we prepared to accommodate and adapt to that?
Reader, I’m taking you to a very personal level, if you’ll forgive the self-indulgence (self-indulgence on a blog! Whatever next?) I’ve found the journey from autism awareness, to autism acceptance, has run parallel with a deep journey of self-acceptance. And even though learning that I was autistic was a huge relief after decades of yearning for answers, acceptance still didn’t come easy.
Since starting this blog, dozens of people have reached out to ask for my help along similar journeys. Often they are becoming aware of autism in themselves, or someone close to them, and they are usually confused about how to become more accepting.
These conversations got me wondering about what I could offer to people visiting this blog who are just starting out.
In the spirit of “we’re all individuals,” the best insights I can give are some of the key milestones in my own journey to accepting my autistic self. Just like individuals, I found them all valuable, infuriating, or comforting by turns.
Each milestone was marked by questions that came from a lack of autistic acceptance. They were cruel, fearful, possibly even offensive. A life-long lack of self-belief takes some time to soothe. But there was no avoiding them. Like the bear hunt, I couldn’t go around it, I couldn’t go over it… I had to go through it. They’re listed here in no particular order; importance shifts depending on the circumstances of each moment.
Ten Autistic Self Acceptance Milestones
- 1 – Feeling entitled to call myself autistic. Am I making it up? Does it really matter? Who is the final authority? Why do I want a diagnosis?
- 2 – Dismantling my internalised prejudice and ableism. Is it a “real” disability? Am I entitled to ask for help? Don’t others have it worse?
- 3 – A lifelong condition. Am I allowed to grieve for a “normal” life? Will it ever go away? Is this as good as it gets?
- 4 – Coming out as autistic. Will I hurt loved ones? What about my career/relationships? Will people disbelieve me, judge me, or be cruel?
- 5 – Separating autism and mental health. Can I be autistic and mentally healthy? How do I know when I’m ill? How do I avoid becoming ill?
- 6 – Educating myself about autism. Who is a trusted authority? What’s the science, where’s the research? Does anyone agree on anything?
- 7 – Sensory adjustments. How can I befriend a confused body? What have I numbed off from? What are my limits? Can I stim to soothe myself?
- 8 – Making peace with masking. When does it help me? When does it harm me? What’s my true “yes” and “no?” Am I authentic? Who the hell am I?
- 9 – Finding my community. Who accepts me? Who doesn’t, and do they matter? Do online communities help? How should I socialise?
- 10 – Executive functioning. What is it? What helps, and where do I get that help? What are my strengths and weaknesses? Am I just lazy and stupid?
I’m pleased to say that I’ve made huge progress in every one of these areas, and will follow up with a positive (or, at least, a kind) response to each question in the coming weeks.
If you’re moving from awareness to acceptance of someone else being autistic, maybe these milestones will give you some insight into what they could be wrestling with. Feel free to use this post as a conversation starter. Maybe you’ll notice a milestone they’ve been quietly sitting on for a long, lonely time.
And if you’re on your own journey from autistic self-awareness to self-acceptance, I hope you take heart from me laying bare my own starting point. A few short years ago I didn’t think I had a voice at all, or the right to stand up for myself in just about any area. I thought I was broken, beyond help, an awkward person who didn’t deserve any special consideration.
I don’t believe those things any more. Autism is an intrinsic part of me, and accepting my whole self means accepting autism. It’s been a gift. I’ve come a long way – and so will you.