Understanding: The Missing Link Between Awareness and Acceptance

By Brandi Timmons, MEd, BCBA, LBA

Did you know that Autism Awareness Month started as a heartfelt initiative by the Autism Society of America in the early ’70s? And then, in 2008, the United Nations stepped in to declare April 2nd as World Autism Awareness Day, putting April on the map as a time to shine a light on autism. In the beginning, it was all about getting the word out there about autism, making people aware that so many children and adults were being diagnosed, with hopes of removing the stigmatism surrounding the diagnosis.

Over the last decade, we’ve seen another sincere shift towards not just awareness but acceptance and inclusion. We’ve moved from just knowing autism is a thing to welcoming and accepting individuals with autism as the incredible community members they are. There’s been a lot more attention on the hurdles that adults with autism face, like finding a job, securing a place to live, and making friends. We’re also seeing more and more individuals with autism leading the charge in advocacy and raising awareness. Their stories and experiences add depth and authenticity to the conversation.

But even with all the progress and positive efforts, many serious challenges remain. Kids and adults with autism still frequently face obstacles at school and work. Misconceptions and stigmas persist, affecting the quality of life and opportunities for those with autism. And it’s a real issue that there aren’t enough resources or support in many places, especially for adults. In addition, too often, where you live, how much money you have, and your background can, unfortunately, make a big difference in the kind of help and services you can get.

Transitioning from autism awareness to acceptance has been a significant achievement. However, it seems like we’ve overlooked a critical step: a genuine understanding of autism. 

Without a fundamental comprehension of what autism entails and how it affects the lives of individuals and their families, fears and misconceptions persist, hindering progress. For example, it’s imperative that medical professionals not only recognize autism but also thoroughly understand its nuances so that more effective screening and diagnosis can occur. Educators’ ability to support their students hinges on having a profound understanding of autism so they can tailor educational approaches to meet diverse needs. Furthermore, the corporate world’s capacity to hire and support autistic individuals effectively depends on a holistic understanding of autism across all levels of an organization, from executive leadership to human resources and everyone in between. 

Establishing a foundation of understanding is crucial for fostering a truly inclusive, supportive, and accepting environment for individuals with autism.

Fostering such understanding will require a different approach than the marketing campaigns that worked to increase awareness and acceptance. True understanding requires a transfer of knowledge – which involves more direct, person-to-person education. Parents/caregivers can play an essential role in this process. Below are four meaningful ways you can promote autism understanding:

  1. FOCUS ON STRENGTHS AND ABILITIES. As parents of an autistic child, recognizing and celebrating your child’s unique strengths and abilities is essential. It’s not just about acknowledging these qualities within your family but also about encouraging others to see and appreciate them. Every child has a set of interests or talents that, when nurtured, can flourish into areas of expertise or deep joy. Discover what captivates your child—art, science, nature, or technology—and find ways to support and expand on these passions. This might involve enrolling them in specific classes, joining clubs, or attending events that align with their interests. Encouraging participation in activities that cater to their special interests can also open doors to social opportunities, allowing them to connect with peers who share similar passions.

It’s also important to embrace being visible in public with your child. Exposure is a powerful tool for societal understanding and acceptance. Being present in various social settings, you help demystify autism for the general public. This includes educating others about sensory sensitivities, the reasons behind stimming, and other aspects of autism that might not be widely understood. Such openness not only fosters a more inclusive environment but also empowers your child to navigate the world confidently, knowing they are supported and accepted as they are. In doing so, you’re advocating for your child and contributing to a broader awareness and acceptance of autism in society.

  1. TEACH SELF-ADVOCACY. Instilling confidence in our children, particularly those with disabilities, is paramount. From an early age, teaching self-advocacy skills lays the foundation for independence and self-reliance, enabling them to navigate challenges with resilience. It’s crucial for children to understand how to identify when they need assistance and feel comfortable seeking help. This empowerment starts with open and positive conversations about their disability, helping them grasp how it influences their experiences and interactions with the world. By teaching your child to self-advocate, you’re not just preparing them for their challenges but empowering them to embrace their identity, advocate for themselves, and pursue their goals with confidence and self-assurance.

The knowledge they acquire not only aids them in personal development but also equips them with the tools to communicate their needs effectively to others. It’s about giving them the language and confidence to articulate what they require, whether it’s additional time for assignments, a quiet space for work, or understanding from their peers and educators. Through self-advocacy, your child will educate and increase others’ understanding of autism. 

  1. EDUCATE THE EDUCATORS. In the educational journey of a child, particularly one with unique learning needs, the importance of proactive and open communication within the school setting cannot be overstressed. Annually updating the Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance (PLAAFP) document is a critical step. Many parents don’t know they should contribute information to the PLAAPF yearly. This document is a baseline of your child’s strengths and areas where they need support. It’s an opportunity to provide educators, counselors, and relevant school personnel with a comprehensive understanding of your child’s capabilities, learning style, and the specific accommodations that facilitate their success.

Sharing detailed insights about your child’s experiences, how they perceive the world, and their behavioral responses equips the school staff with the necessary context to tailor their teaching methods and interactions accordingly. It’s about painting a complete picture beyond academic performance, encompassing the emotional and social dimensions of your child’s school life.

Effective communication is the cornerstone of this process. Ensuring that all parties involved are on the same page about what strategies have been effective and which ones haven’t paves the way for a more supportive and understanding school environment. 

By adopting a collaborative and transparent approach with the school, you advocate for your child’s needs and contribute to a setting that not only recognizes but celebrates their individuality. The more fully everyone understands how your child experiences the world, the more inclusive and empowering your child’s educational experience will be.

  1. INFORM THE CORPORATE WORLD. Securing meaningful employment stands as a significant objective for numerous autistic individuals, which makes it imperative for workplaces to cultivate an accepting and accommodating environment. For employers, understanding the nuances of autism is the first step toward fostering such a work culture where diversity is not just recognized but valued. One proactive measure parents can take is volunteering to deliver presentations about autism during in-service opportunities (or recommending other speakers for presentations). Such initiatives not only educate but also bridge gaps, challenge stereotypes, and foster empathy.

Engaging with your company’s Employee Resource Group (ERG) offers another avenue to champion autism understanding within the workplace. Sharing personal stories and experiences can be a powerful way to educate others about autism and the specific supports that can make a difference. Personal narratives can foster empathy and understanding, creating the need for supports more tangible to colleagues and decision-makers. ERG meetings and communications can be used to bring in experts, organize workshops, and distribute informational materials.

Furthermore, dialogues with HR departments about hiring practices are vital. These conversations can lead to implementing more inclusive recruitment strategies, ensuring that the hiring process accommodates the diverse needs of autistic applicants. Companies can take significant strides towards inclusivity by advocating for adjustments in interviews or considering alternative assessments of skills and competencies. You can also identify specific supports and accommodations that would benefit individuals with autism, such as flexible work schedules, sensory-friendly work environments, or access to specialized training for managers. Present these suggestions to HR and management with clear explanations of their benefits.

The journey from the early days of autism awareness campaigns to the present has been unexpected and transformative, with diagnoses rising and awareness spreading wider than ever. This growing awareness laid the groundwork for acceptance and inclusion. However, to foster genuine change, a deeper understanding of autism and its impact on individuals and families is essential. It’s evident, then, that the path forward lies not just in awareness but in cultivating a profound understanding of autism, unlocking the door to significant improvements for all.

Brandi Timmons, MEd, BCBA, LBA has over two decades of experience as a special educator, championing the potential in autistic children and adults by fostering environments that spotlight their strengths. Brandi’s contributions extend beyond classrooms. She’s a writer and researcher, state and national speaker, curriculum designer, and program creator. Most recently she has co-founded Spectrum Linx, a pivotal resource for families of autistic members that provides support, guidance, and knowledge at every stage of the autism journey.

*As originally published in Autism Parenting Magazine



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