More Than What We Oppose
April has never been my favorite month in the Autistic community. I go through the motions as best I can because engaging in the rituals is part of belonging. This year, concerned about visibility, I went as far as making a banner to hang on my front stoop and buying the most outrageously fun Autistic pride sticker* I could find for my car. Still, I remain skeptical of how we do April. The reclaimed concept of an acceptance month is certainly an improvement on #AutismAwareness, but it doesn’t come close to what it could, and should, become. Even in our alternative April activities, the month fails to live up to what it should be. It will continue to do so unless we change our approach.
The reality of the situation is that April was branded Autism Acceptance Month solely because it was Autism Awareness Month first. Medical model organizations lit things up blue and described the Autistic existence as a tragedy and a burden, an inherent obstacle to full human flourishing. For obvious reasons, Autistic adults found this both offensive and threatening. It offended us because it devalued the good lives many of us live. It threatened us because any narrative that suggests lives like ours are not worth living moves people to try to prevent lives like ours. If enough of mainstream society accepts that narrative, the day may well come when there are no more lives like ours. Prominent statements about awareness in public places and on social media made #Awareness impossible to escape and April exhausting and dispiriting for many Autistic adults.
For those reasons, we tried to push back. This was, and is, right and necessary as part of the struggle for control of the narrative that is our struggle for people like us continuing to exist in the long run, our collective sense of self-respect, and many individual Autistics’ ability to cope. As long as April is associated with an uptick in anti-Autistic ableism, we will have to respond to it in our communications with the wider society. Internally, though, responding to outside ableism isn’t enough. Opposing ableism and the medical model’s proposed answer to the “problem” of Autistic people is necessary but not sufficient for our community’s long-term survival. We also need a narrative that draws people in. If our community is to last for generations to come, it has to be an appealing group to join. It must come with a sense of pride, support, and shared experience. A common threat is not a healthy, desirable, or durable long-term identity.
The crux of my problem with April is that we spend it responding to ableism not just when we face the rest of the world but among ourselves. We miss the opportunity to celebrate who we are. I don’t have a coherent plan for making next April more enjoyable and productive within our community, but colorful banners and Autistic pride swag seem like part of the solution. So, too are reveling in memes, jokes, writing, and art, breaking bread together, getting ready for Autreat, and mentoring newer activists. We can’t sustain protecting our community unless we have something worth protecting, something warm, human, and real, at its heart. In April, we still tend to fall into talking more about what we oppose than who we are, what we want the world to be. That cannot continue. We deserve, and need, something better: an April that is more about us.
*This is not an affiliate link. I just love it.