There’s a growing discussion, within the autistic self-advocacy community, about the difference between “autism awareness” and autism acceptance. Awareness, especially as promoted by major organizations such as with dangerous real-life consequences to autistic people. “Awareness” sounds like a neutral-enough concept, but because of how it has been implemented in practice, autistics are beginning to push back against it. We have a counter-demand: autism acceptance.or the National Autism Association, is usually degrading, stigmatizing, and rooted in ignorance. Through this, the public becomes “aware” of how tragic, suffering, life-destroying, and burdensome autistic people are—
But no sooner do we claim the term “acceptance” for ourselves than it, too, gets co-opted. The new Autism Speaks line of school supplies includes the word “acceptance” in its promotional material, noted by outraged autistics, on the same material invoking the prospect of “cure.” Isn’t accepting something rather incompatible with trying to “cure” it?
Perhaps—but in their eyes, it may not be. “Acceptance” is a slippery word with more than one meaning.
In one sense, “acceptance” can mean making peace with something one can’t change. A synonym is “acquiescence.” We accept death. We accept suffering. We accept illness. We accept loss. We accept many things we nevertheless understand to be undesirable.
If someone I love dies, I have to accept that. I can’t change it. I can’t undo it. I have to make peace with it. But I can hope no one else meets the same fate. I can warn people about whatever caused the death, raise awareness, advocate research and preventions and cures. I’m still accepting the death—I’m at peace with the fact that I can’t change it. I might fall off a ladder and break both legs, and I’d have no choice but to accept the injury. But I can spend the rest of my life raising awareness of ladder safety to prevent others from suffering that way, and I can do so without jeopardizing my own status as having accepted my situation. Accepting the unchangeable past is not incompatible with trying to alter the course of the future. It’s in this sense that parents of autistic children can honestly say that they accept their children, accept autism, but still support the core message of Autism Speaks and other cure-oriented organizations.
It’s possible that this use of “acceptance” by Autism Speaks is not merely an attempt to co-opt the language of the anti-cure movement and gloss over the fundamental objections many autistic people have to the AS mission (although I’m certain it is, among other things, an attempt at just that), but also perhaps a beginning indicator of a shift away from the pretense that a conventional “cure” for autism is possible. It’s a genetic condition, present before birth, affecting the physical structure of the brain. Medical science is nowhere near being able to undo such a thing. Therefore, the last hope for those wishing for an autistic-free world is prevention—a prenatal test for autism that can be used for selective abortion (admittedly, some advocates claim that “prevention” need not involve abortion at all, but only some sort of prenatal vitamin that would somehow alter the autistic embryo’s development… but I’m not sure even the people saying that seriously believe it). And prevention is entirely compatible with acceptance. A parent can accept that she has been burdened with an autistic child, while still selflessly working to spare others from such a tragedy. She can accept her broken child, for all his limitations, and come to terms and make peace with the fact that he will never be non-autistic, while still wishing and hoping that her next child is normal.
But “acceptance” doesn’t have to mean “acquiescence.” “To accept” can also mean “to choose to receive”—in the sense that we accept gifts. We don’t tolerate gifts. We don’t come to terms with our inability to change our gifts, make peace with gifts, while fighting to prevent future gifts (well, most of the time). We choose to receive gifts. We do so gladly. We do not wish for a gift-free world (well, most of the time). We enjoy them. We are happy. We are grateful. And we don’t want to change them.
It’s in this sense of “acceptance” that autistic people promote Autism Acceptance. In the era of eugenics, it’s not enough to say “we’re here, get used to it.” We are here. We’re unchangeable. Acquiescence to our existence is inevitable. We must go one step further, to “we’re here, and there’s no reason to wish we weren’t.” Go above awareness, above tolerance, above acceptance, to reach the message: choose to receive autism.