The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer:
April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day. It is an important day for the ASSA, or the Autism Society of Southern Arizona, as we recognize the gifts that come with an autism diagnosis on a global scale.
The United Nations recognizes this day. As we work to create a more inclusive society, the Autism Society of America is making recommendations to the international community to render this day of recognition as “Autism Acceptance Day.”
In concert with the Autism Society of America, ASSA is delivering a call to action to collaborate efforts from “awareness” to “acceptance.”
The shared mission is to improve the lives of all affected by autism by creating an inclusive society where people with autism can maximize their potential by living a full life through connections and acceptance.
According to the CDC, ASD, or Autism Spectrum Disorder, is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges. It looks different in every individual, and everyone’s journey is unique.
The spectrum of autism is so vast that some individuals are verbal, and others are not. According to the Arizona Developmental Disabilities Surveillance Program, 1 in 63 children in Arizona was identified with ASD.
There are multiple therapies associated with autism: speech, occupational, applied behavior analysis and physical therapies. When I conduct a presentation to people and ask if they know someone along the autism spectrum disorder, consistently, hands go up across the room.
In my role as an executive director, I will never stop working toward building awareness in our community.
However, it is time for individuals, organizations and advocates to adopt a more strategic approach in shifting the conversation beyond awareness to acceptance so that autistic individuals may find fulfillment in all aspects of their lives.
Acceptance can be challenging and can prevent strong support networks from forming. The Autism Society values acceptance across all areas of lives such as education, employment, housing and long-term care.
Let us begin to shift past conversations from “awareness” to “acceptance” and see where that can take us. Labels and words play a role in our perspective.
There is power in our words, and by changing the language, we strive to create acceptance, which can drive change for those in our community affected by autism.
I invite you to reframe past thinking to accept autistic individuals for their beauty and individuality. When we accept individuals for their unique gifts, we pave the way for equality, opportunity and empathy.
Awareness was a step,and now we must take the next leap forward into acceptance. In our community, this can look like offering someone with a disability a position within your organization and taking the time to build their skills so they can contribute to your team.
It should look like integrating autistic individuals into sports programs, extracurricular activities and birthday parties. Next time you are at the grocery store and see a child having a behavioral meltdown, you may want to offer support to the mom rather than look the other way.
Acceptance is a powerful agent of change that can build bridges of change. Diagnosis labels should not bind us and create limitations.
Let us begin to shift the paradigm from awareness to acceptance and establish a community that removes stigmas — with hearts that support, build relationships and show compassion.
Brie Seward is the executive director of the Autism Society of Southern Arizona, with a passion to serve those affected by autism spectrum disorder.