On ‘we need to change society not autistic people’ … autism and stigma
A call for society to shift its attitude towards autism and individuals on the spectrum, emphasize more the importance of recognizing autism as a diverse and unique way of experiencing the world (without pretending no autistic people experience disability or impairments of their own) the need for inclusive environments and efforts to combat discrimination and ableism experienced by autistic individuals.
As an (autistic) autism advocate, I have recently had the opportunity to speak for an organization on the topic of autism and sitigma. I spoke on the question whether society or autistic people should change. This is a summary on what I said.
When I speak to you on autism and stigma, I feel it’s my duty to address to you the need to change the societal attitude towards autistics and only in some specific cases the attitudes or habits of autistic people themselves.
I believe society needs to be inclusive and accommodating people with all kinds of otherness, rather than expecting non-conforming people to conform to societal or cultural norms. This includes autistic people. I think it’s important to recognize that autism is not a disease, something to feel guilty about, or deficit, but rather a way of experiencing and interacting with the world that influences the way autistic people function in different situations. We should however acknowledge autistic people have limitations and sometimes experience disability situations but also have unique strengths and abilities and they should be valued for who they are, not more or less.
Today society often sees autism as something that needs to be fixed, rather than recognizing and accepting the diversity of human experience. This often leads to harmful practices and loss of talented but differently communicating and behaving autistic people due to suicide or euthanasia.
It is a necessity to address more the ableism and discrimination that autistic people face daily, that often leads to poverty, unemployment, and social situation. In some countries there are already laws, policies, and programs that protect the rights and supports the needs of autistic people, but they should be reinforced and widely promoted. In other countries it’s necessary these laws, policies, and programs should be created as soon as possible.
There are several steps than can be taken to change society’s stigmatizing attitude towards autistic people, from a very young age to the very old people. Here are only some of them:
- Through education: an increasing public awareness and, especially understanding of autism could help to dispel damaging myths and misconceptions about autism, for example through educational campaigns, workshops, and resources for educators, healthcare professionals, family members and the public
- Through inclusion: creating inclusive and accommodating environments, such as schools, workplaces, and community spaces, could help to promote acceptance and understanding of autistic people. It’s important not only to provide accommodation and inclusive structures, but at the same rate as well a culture of inclusivity and mutual understanding
- Through advocacy: Autistic individuals and their allies should play a powerful role in advocating for acceptance and understanding of autism in a more nuanced and less generalizing way than is now often the case in the mainstream press, in movies and documentaries. This could include participating in campaigns, events, and lobbying efforts to raise awareness and promote change for all autistic people, not those close to their own experiences of life and disability.
- Through representation: There is a lot of work to be done improving and increasing representation of autistic people in media and popular culture to promote full acceptance and understanding of the diversity of autistic people. This could include casting talented actors, autistic but also non-autistic, that portray autism accurately and positively, and including well-studied autistic characters in movies, television shows and books. These should replace autism as a gimmick, as a plot device or characterization in media, often in a way that is inaccurate, stereotypical, or exploitative, with autism as an influence.
- Through emphasizing on self-advocacy: Autistic individuals, who have the capacities to do so, should be encouraged to speak up for themselves and their experiences to help others understand the diversity of the autism spectrum.
- Through government policies and laws: Governments can play a role in promoting acceptance and understanding of autism by creating laws and policies that protect the rights and support the needs of individuals on the spectrum.
Of course, we shouldn’t oversimplify the complexity of autism and the diversity of experiences among autistic individuals. It’s important to keep in mind that autism spectrum is diverse and individuals on it have unique experiences, abilities, and challenges. Therefore, it’s necessary to keep in mind there is an abundant diversity of experiences among autistic people and how autism plays a part in the lives of people living with them, working with them and with others. We shouldn’t forget to be nuanced when addressing the relationships of autistic people and the attitudes towards them in our society.
In conclusion, I believe it is not individuals on the autism spectrum who need to change, but rather society needs to change its attitude and create an inclusive and supportive environment for all individuals, including those on the spectrum. By recognizing and valuing the diversity of human experience, we can create a more equitable and just society for all.
All in all, I also believe that changing society’s stigmatization of autism will require a multifaceted and sustained effort, involving education, inclusion, advocacy, representation, and government support. By working together, we can create a more inclusive and equitable society for all individuals on the autism spectrum. Thank you.