Go further than “Autism Awareness”: Appreciate autistic people for who they are

BY HANNAH ROACH '17

Autism Awareness Month is a misnomer. Chances are, you are aware of autistic people. The far more difficult question is whether or not you appreciate autistic people. A month that is supposed to be for the support, love and appreciation of autistic people becomes corrupted when we “light it up blue.”

If you’re unfamiliar with the phrase, “light it up blue” comes from the organization Autism Speaks. This group, rather than lifting autistic individuals up because of their autism, focuses on “curing” autistic people. I also want to make it clear that I am not autistic, but rather, I am the sister of and an advocate for my two autistic brothers. While all autistic people have important voices and perspectives to share every month, I use April as a time to share my brothers’ voices with as many as I can. My two brothers cannot talk and cannot effectively share with you what
makes them happy, what makes them feel appreciated. So I will tell you.

My twin brother, David, loves nothing more than eating McDonald’s french fries, watching Disney movies on repeat, seeing airplanes take off (particularly at JFK or Bradley International, which he calls “Hannah Holyoke Airport”), and the entire state of Florida. He feels most appreciated when you take him to McDonald’s after the Special Olympics or when family comes over on Sundays for dinner.

My younger brother, Jonathan, is happiest when his family is near. He loves long walks and car rides, ketchup, puzzles and hugs. He feels most appreciated when you come home after a long time away (maybe after coming home from college). 

I’m sharing these moments with you because these are what you do not see at face value. Because my brothers are nonverbal and very often make noises that do not sound like human speech, it is very easy for those walking by to stare and gawk. This is the “awareness” part — I’m sure that people are aware of my brothers’ neurodivergence when they stim and yell in public. I want all autistic people to be appreciated as they are and without any need to change or make us more comfortable. Appreciation is the next step. Appreciation is not supporting an organization that doesn’t support autism and autistic people as they are. It is celebrating the diversity, talents and voices of autistic people.

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