The first-ever autism-awareness campaign started in the early 1970s. Now, 50 years later, most people have heard of autism, they are aware of it, but autistic advocates are becoming increasingly sceptical of awareness events. We do not want autism awareness any more – we want autism acceptance.
Promoting autism acceptance in schools
Here are some simple changes that you can make to promote autism acceptance in your school community that will make a huge difference to autistic children and staff.
1. It is OK to talk about autism
Autism is not a dirty word and nothing to be ashamed of. When I have told children in school that I am autistic, they have always had a lot of questions and have been appreciative of the space to ask them. If there are autistic pupils or staff in your school community who want to share their experiences of autism, this should be encouraged.
2. It is OK to be autistic
Autistic children think and act differently to other people, and that is OK. Traditionally, targets in children’s IEPs (individual education plans) or child plans involve interventions that aim to make autistic children more like non-autistic (allistic) children. Attempts to modify autistic behaviour and the way we learn are unrealistic and unreasonable.
3. Stop policing autistic bodies
Do the autistic children in your school flap their hands? Maybe they rock back and forth, spin around or repeat words and phrases? All of this is known as "stimming", which is short for self-stimulating behaviour, and is important to autistic people. We stim when we are happy, we stim when we are anxious, we stim when we need to self-regulate. It is a positive part of our self-expression that should not be suppressed.
4. Beware of tropes and misconceptions
Autism training has been rife with tropes and misconceptions for decades and you will probably have heard a lot of them. Autistic children apparently do not understand humour or sarcasm, they lack empathy, and non-verbal autistics have no communication skills – these are among the dozens I have heard in staffrooms. Take some time to learn more about the individual before making these assumptions.
5. The 'double empathy problem'
Traditionally, the onus to make effort in communication has been placed on autistics to modify their behaviour. Autistic researcher Damian Milton describes the "double empathy problem" in his 2012 research as a circular form of communication, where both parties come together and make effort to communicate successfully. What changes can you make to improve your communication with autistic pupils?
This April, autistic people ask you to move away from autism awareness and learn more about the autistic people in your school community. Accept their differences without trying to mould them into an allistic version of themselves. Instead, celebrate the wonderful neurodiversity of humanity.
Laura McConnell is an autistic teacher of autistic children, based in Scotland. She tweets @LauraFMcConnell