By Kevin Fox

In 2021, the Autism Society of America changed April from Autism Awareness Month to Autism Acceptance Month. The difference between awareness and acceptance is very important to me. By this point, most people have someone with autism in their lives, whether that is in their family, among their friends, or at work. Most people are aware of the challenges that people with autism face in a way they may not have been 20 or even ten years ago. But acceptance? That’s a much different, more meaningful thing.

Meeting a person with autism for the first time can be disarming. Rapid hand movements or “stimming,” social interactions that are almost correct but just a bit off, and fixations on special interests are just a few things that can set people with autism apart. We often train our brains to recognize these slight differences as a sign we should distance ourselves from a person. However, acceptance is making an effort to work through these differences and include a person in our lives. My autistic friend John, for example, might wave his hands up and down constantly, but he is very fun to be around and always adds good ideas to conversations. Laura may be quiet and keep to herself, but she is very smart and always willing to help when people have questions at work.

Acceptance is something I’ve worked extra hard to get all my life. I realize that I don’t always make a good first impression on people, so if I care about being friends or forming a relationship with someone, I reach out in a way that is more comfortable and fitting to me (frequently online) and try to strengthen the bond that way. But it hasn’t always worked out. Sometimes, I have gotten left out of group social outings because I’m just slightly too weird for others to tolerate. I don’t always even perceive that I am doing anything differently from how “normal” people do and alienating myself until other people tell me after the fact. And those are never fun conversations to have.

It is always correct to separate yourself from people engaging in actions you perceive to be dangerous. However, sometimes I think people are a little quick to make judgments. We all frequently make decisions on the people we want to surround ourselves with based on a 30-second first impression. Acceptance, to me, is about taking time to listen to each other and make connections. It is realizing that a person may have some weaknesses, but also realizing the same person may have gifts we can never even dream of, and we can help build each other up. And Autism Acceptance Month is about making sure people with autism are treated with love and respect and given their best chance to be successful, just like everyone deserves.

Kevin Fox is a writer, online content editor, and autism advocate. He lives in Chattanooga, TN, and enjoys playing piano, going to concerts, and attending regular local autism conferences and support group meetings. Read more on Kevin's blog.  

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