April is a month filled with messages about autism and autistic people (April 2 is the official United Nations observance). All over the world different countries and different organizations will mark particular days, weeks, or months with a variety of campaigns. Although it is sometimes obvious (but often subtle), throughout the month of April and indeed throughout the year, the general public is sure to come across competing messages, using different symbols and representing sometimes conflicting approaches and perspectives.
In the simplest of terms, while many seek to promote the acceptance of autistic people as welcomed and fully valued members of society, there is other messaging that is focused on autism as a “problem to be solved” and this view is associated with some of the most popular “autism campaigns” which are often represented by symbols like “puzzle pieces coming together” or “lighting it up blue.”
LiveWorkPlay is not an arbiter of what is right or wrong on these matters, but we do have a mandate to support inclusion, and embedded in this is our belief in approaching the exclusion of people with disabilities (including autism) as a problem to be solved primarily through changes in the attitudes and practices of society at large (a social model of disability, or what Al Condeluci describes as the “macro model”). This differs from a medical model approach (“micro model”) where the focus is on the person with a difference as “the problem.”
When it comes to autism, the macro model approach is often described in terms of “neurodiversity” which is about accepting and appreciating that every human being is different, and that deciding who is “normal” is both abstract and discriminatory. Beyond this, neurodiversity helps us understand that there is tremendous value for all when those who may be seen as “different” are welcomed as contributors who can bring strengths and gifts that benefit the whole of humanity.
Our purpose with this post is to emphasize critical thinking about autism and inclusion, and in particular, to recommend that people who are unsure about these issues spend time learning about and appreciating the views of autistic people themselves (see resources below). Their voices are often not incorporated into the thinking behind the approaches, concepts, or messaging of the most well-financed organizations, who are able to purchase their way into the public discourse. This need not be sourced in bad intentions – however, formal and informal coalitions that often self-identify as the “actually autistic” movement, are making a strong case that there are no longer any valid excuses for promoting a medical model approach to autism.*
LiveWorkPlay sees alignment in this view with respect to broader issues that impact people with intellectual disabilities and/or autistic people, and which are a part of our evidence-based daily efforts to support and advance inclusive outcomes. This includes housing, employment, and community engagement – there remains a well-funded (public and private funds) “segregated infrastructure” in our own community of Ottawa, as well as across the province of Ontario, Canada, and other parts of the world. From various forms of institutional group living, to segregated programs like sheltered workshops, to “special needs only” arts and recreation programs, exclusion is not only an attitude, it is systemically supported through structures that deliberately keep people with intellectual disabilities and/or autistic people separated from others.
We see every day the benefits of supporting people with intellectual disabilities and/or autistic people to have homes of their own, to have a real job for real pay, and to engage in regular community venues for the enjoyment of arts and recreation (this of course requires that neighbourhoods, employers, and community venues know how to be welcoming and accepting – that’s a big part of why LiveWorkPlay exists – to help develop the capacity of regular citizens and regular places to successfully include others).
So, before you buy that puzzle shirt or set up that blue floodlight, take some time to understand what these symbols and campaigns actually represent, and make sure they align with your own values and intentions about autistic people and their place in your community.
* Derek Burrow from Autistics For Autistics Ontario (A4A) was consulted with respect to the content of this blog and the graphic at the top of the page was adapted from the Autistic Self Advocacy Network