April is Autism Awareness Month, and I am an Autistic person. But I am not “autism.” No Autistic person is. There are Autistic people with different abilities and limitations, just like every other person with and without disabilities. As the saying goes, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”
I didn’t know I was Autistic until I was around 15 years old. Up until then I was diagnosed with a non-specific learning disability. I was later diagnosed as a person with autism. It wasn’t until my undergrad college years that I learned about disability studies and disability as a way of being in a class “Disability Culture and Equity.” This experience was not only informative, but ultimately became instrumental in how I perceived and spoke of my experiences.
How we talk and think about things and how we message them impacts society.
My introduction to disability studies inspired me to reflect on the practical application of what I learned and how it applied to me personally as an Autistic person, and I decided to further my education in graduate school, majoring in Cultural Foundations of Education and Disability Studies. This course of study broadened my perspective as I learned not only more about the history of disabilities and people with disabilities but a lot about societal and cultural norms: How we talk and think about things and how we message them in either positive ways to help ideas progress, or negative messaging that is not as helpful and stirs fears, or a mixture of both that can impact society. I transitioned from procuring an intellectual understanding to experiential application through immersion in disability and Autistic culture and community. On campus, I joined On The Spectrum Group (OTS), a support and advocacy group of graduate and undergraduate students, including alumni and other community members, who identify as Autistic. This grass-roots organization offered a nonjudgmental, supportive space for Autistic students the freedom to express themselves to talk about challenges or just get together to hang out. It was monumental in that no one was telling you how you should be; it was a group-directed respectful environment where people could be who they were, share experiences and learn from each other. I also interned in D.C. through American Association for People with Disabilities (AAPD) and lived with other interns in a supportive environment where we were there for each other and understood each other’s differences in a community of persons with disabilities.
It was empowering to be around others who were encouraging, accepting and appreciative of diverse ideas and strengths.
After earning my Master’s Degree, I began working at the Office of Interdisciplinary Programs and Outreach (OIPO) at Burton Blatt Institute, Syracuse University. I found that working alongside other neurodivergent and disabled individuals helped me gain acceptance and understanding by learning from each other and actually putting into practice what I had studied. It was empowering to be around others who were encouraging, accepting and appreciative of diverse ideas and strengths, advocating and shaping new ideas and discussion around supports and self-determination to have the voices of people with disabilities heard and be included in the discussion around disability rights, cultural and societal acceptance. Working with mentors and peers in this supportive and positive environment built my confidence to work with other disabled and non-disabled individuals and organizations in environments where I could use my skills and ideas to further disability rights.
I see what makes me Autistic as an asset
that brings qualities and insights
that I can "bring to the table."
All of these encounters and work environments introduced me to Autistic Culture and Disability Culture, and those who are deeply dedicated to this community helped my views about myself and others evolve. More and more I’m learning to accept myself and when to ask for a little support, rather than viewing myself through the old lens of having a “deficit.” Instead, I see what makes me Autistic as an asset that brings qualities and insights that I can “bring to the table.” I continue to work to speak up and advocate for myself and others to find autistic space and community at large that can enhance and support me and others. I wasn’t empowered, but through my studies, work, outreach, and advocacy, now I am.
Go beyond Awareness and embrace Autistic Pride
I’m guessing a lot of Autistic people like myself didn’t fully realize the implicit bias we have thrust upon us as a society and how our understanding of autism and other differences has been culturally expanded for centuries. So, I ask people and organizations to live the real lesson of Autism Awareness Month: Be Aware of Autistic People. Be aware of our skills, the ways we can contribute to businesses and society, and of the support we need to do so. Even beyond Autistic Awareness, I ask people to go beyond Appreciation and Acceptance move forward to Empowerment and Advocacy and embrace Autistic PRIDE and Identity.
I am not “autism” because, like every other Autistic person, I want to be recognized and respected for who I am and my capabilities, not for the diagnosis I have. I am proud to call myself an Autistic Person. Autism Awareness Month should be more than the acknowledgment of a diagnosis, but rather a focus on Autistic Identity and a celebration every day of Autistic Pride.
Founder of Jason’s Connection – an online resource for those with disabilities, mental health, aging and other needs. Jason was awarded an M.S. in Cultural Foundations of Education and Advanced Certificate in Disability Studies from Syracuse University. Jason is also a Project Coordinator and Research Associate at the Burton Blatt Institute, an international think tank for Disability Rights and Human Justice at Syracuse University. He regularly contributes to the blog in his own series called Jason’s View and travels the country consulting and speaking about disability issues and rights. To read more from Jason Harris, read Jason's View.