April has Never Been About Autism Awareness, It has Always Been About Money

So April is over and with it “Autism Awareness Month” and what have we learned?

How much did you learn about autistic people?

Did you interact with autistic people?

What awareness campaigns did you participate in?

Did you give money to or purchase an item or service that shared a portion of the proceeds with an autism charity?

If you did the latter can you tell me the goals and intentions of that organization?

No?

I’m not surprised. Autism Awareness Month would more accurately be called “Autism Fundraising Month”. The month where everyone buys something with a puzzle piece on it and proclaims that they are raising awareness for autism. But what awareness is that? and has it done any good?

If you posted about the puzzle piece pedicure you got for Autism Awareness Month on Facebook and you can’t answer basic questions about autism much less the organization that benefitted from your spa day then you didn’t actually do anything for raising awareness. You attended a fundraiser and that is a different thing.

A fundraiser is an event where an organization solicits donations for their organization.

An awareness campaign should be where an organization starts putting that money to good use through meaningful, targeted learning objectives.

Getting a puzzle piece anything in April is really just a good way to show just how unaware of autistic people that you really are. The puzzle piece is, after all, a controversial image within the autistic community (here defined as actual autistic people only) many people do not like it. This information is pretty easy to find with a google search. And if you don’t actually care what actual autistic people think about things that directly impact them, then you can consider this academic study that came to the same conclusions (link leads to a paywall). The conclusions are pretty clear

If an organization’s intention for using puzzle-piece imagery is to evoke negative associations, our results suggest the organization’s use of puzzle-piece imagery is apt. However, if the organization’s intention is to evoke positive associations, our results suggest that puzzle-piece imagery should probably be avoided.

All those puzzle pieces and other vague statements of support for autistic people that nonautistic people proudly post about on social media do absolutely nothing to increase awareness and in some cases as with the wide array of autism inspired puzzle piece paraphernalia may actually be achieving the opposite of awareness. These images ultimately mislead people about what autism is and what it means to live in the world while autistic.

Beyond the fact that for the most part Autism Awareness Month campaigns have everything to do with fundraising and very little to do with awareness, the continued conflation of the two during April actively hurts autistic people. Not just because for an entire month we are inundated with distressing images that people have been misled into believing are helpful. Charities maintain a level of cultural status that often overshadows that of the people they claim to serve. So if an autistic person attempts to inform someone who has proudly displayed their participation in a fundraiser and presented it as an act of awareness raising that their action was at best meaningless and at worst actively harmful, that person is going to get defensive. It is not uncommon for people who have been challenged on their proud act of solidarity to shout down a member of the group they just publicly claimed to support. They’ll believe the charity over autistic people. Because the charity told them all they had to do was publicly say they supported autism awareness month and to put a slogan or a puzzle piece in some proximity to their person.

They were promised that an empty gesture and a financial donation were good enough. Being told that the action is functionally meaningless is unsurprisingly going to make them angry.

I’ve said it before that nondisabled people have set the bar for solidarity with disabled people at simply not actively hating us. But that tolerance only lasts until a disabled person tries to demand more. To demand real awareness and the accompanying acceptance that is really needed to raise our standing in society.

Yet, we must continue to call out individuals for their false solidarity. Nothing will change unless we do. People should not be left comfortably sitting in the lie that simply declaring solidarity and throwing money at a charity actually means that they care about autistic people.

Anyone who claims to have participated in an awareness campaign for any marginalized group of people should be able to answer the following questions.

What is your intention in publicly sharing your experiences with this campaign?

Who organized the campaign?

What does that group/organization do?

Were members of the group being advocated for involved in the planning and delivery of the campaign?

What do members of that group think about this kind of activity?

Did the campaign give you the opportunity to meaningfully engage with members of the group being advocated for?

What did you learn?

What information was new or surprising to you?

Can you explain the information you learned to someone else?

If you donated money, do you know what that money will be used for?

If answering any of those questions would be difficult for a person participating in your campaign then it has nothing to do with awareness and the responsible thing to do would be to remove any mention of awareness from the branding of that campaign.

Awareness requires that people know more than the basic fact that autistic people exist. If your version of awareness cannot lead to acceptance then your awareness is an illusion. You just want a metaphorical cookie for giving a charity money.

 

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If You Care about Autistic People Don’t Just Perform Solidarity

So April is upon us and along with it Autism Bewareness Month (I stand by that word choice). Tomorrow is World Autism Awareness Day and I am already feeling suffocated by all of the faux awareness.

Awareness would be great if it actually meant that people were actually educating themselves about the realities of autistic people. If it meant promoting the voices of actually autistic people. I would be ecstatic if that real awareness translated into acceptance and action. Action, that meant fighting for the rights of autistic people. Unfortunately, more often than not we get shallow shoutouts.

The danger of those shoutouts is not only in their inefficacy and often patronizing messaging, it is also in that they benefit problematic organizations.

Yesterday, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed when I noticed that a friend had added a border to their profile picture. The following image is my own photo with the border as illustration (don’t worry it never made it onto my profile).

autism speaks frame facebook

Image description: A woman with short blond hair, blue eyes and dark blue lipstick, looks directly at the camera. On the bottom is s white border with the Autism Speaks logo (a blue puzzle piece over the words Autism Speaks) and followed by the words “different not less”

First, let’s deal with the messaging. On its face, it’s a positive message but it also doesn’t really tell you anything about me or my experiences as an autistic person. It’s also so basic that it merely pays lip service to my humanity rather than actually affirming it. It exists in the same vein as the empty “special needs” memes that promote “acceptance” through pity.

10940999_769959393059095_6633527766282533542_n

Image description: Black text on a pink background the text reads “anyone willing to post this and leave it on their status for 1 hour? It is Special Education Week & Autism and ADHD Awareness month–This is in honor of all children who struggle everyday”

Images like this often position themselves as dares, the suggestion is do you dare? are you brave enough? The message that those who don’t are morally suspect. Then the images don’t share any actual information but reaffirm the preconceived notion that to be disabled is to suffer.

Not only is this not true awareness it is active misinformation that spreads pity.

Returning to the Autism Speaks Facebook border. While is isn’t as aggressive in its approach to getting people to use it, the end game is the same. You can feel good about the fact that you’ve done something. You’ve helped raise awareness. Admittedly an awareness that consists largely of an acknowledgement that autistic people exist and a general sentiment that it’s probably best to be nice to autistic people.

It doesn’t tell you why you need to be reminded of these facts. It doesn’t tell you about the real risks of violence and bullying that autistic people face. It doesn’t tear down stereotypes about autism. Which means that people are likely going to continue to comfortably believe the misinformation they may have internalized.

This kind of solidarity is predominantly a performance. It may come with good intentions but it ultimately does little or nothing to actually help autistic people. It does make people who add that border to their profile picture feel warm & fuzzy though.

One thing that the widespread adoption of performance solidarity like that border is that it gives a lot of publicity to the organization that created it and that’s a problem.

Autism Speaks is an organization that has a long history of speaking for autistic people with little or no input from actually autistic people. It has spread dangerous narratives about autistic people. It has supported anti-vaccination narratives.

While there have been changes in the organization and it no longer promotes a cure narrative and is no longer overtly anti-vaccination. It still widely benefits from it’s history peddling those dangerous narratives.

consider how the White House is going to “Light it Up Blue” (a practice created by Autism Speaks) tomorrow for the first time in years after the Obama administration halted the practice, in large part because of feedback from the autistic community. Donald Trump is friends with Bob Wright, one of the founders of Autism Speaks and the source of many of the dangerous narratives that the organization no longer officially supports. Trump is also sceptical of vaccines.

So regardless of their official position change. Autism Speaks is still largely associated with those narratives and they crop up in very visible ways. Autism Speaks is almost certainly going to financially benefit from this connection.

Despite their official change of heart, Autism Speaks is still widely disliked by actual autistic people who remember the years of demonization from the organization. It is also far too early to tell whether the official changes in policy will translate into real change in the actions the organization takes.

So, I would ask you not to change your profile picture to include that border this April. I would ask that you not support Autism Speaks.

If you really want to support autistic people this April and hopefully beyond it, you can support organizations that are run by autistic people like the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and the Autism Women’s Network. You can read the work of actually autistic people. You can promote and amplify their voices and work. You can financially support them (shameless plug for my tip jar).

These are things that can actually create a more nuanced understanding of autism and a positive kind of awareness. An awareness that leads to acceptance and action on the right of autistic people.

 

How to support my work
If you liked this post and want to support my continued writing please consider becoming a patron on patreon.

Become a Patron!

If you can’t commit to a monthly contribution consider buying me a metaphorical coffee (or two or more). Contributions help me keep this blog going and support my ongoing efforts to obtain a PhD.

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

If you want to support my work but are unable to do so financially, please share this post on your various social media accounts.