Autism Awareness Month: Respecting Our Differences

My nephew and I were driving to my mother’s house for a chicken and dumpling dinner. And I was complaining about the big concert where I’d once again struggled to hear the music.

Woman walking in the wind

Anne Kenealy

“There was a whole horn section on stage, and all I could hear were the snares and the bass,” I groused. “I wanted to hear ALL the instruments! So I went to the mixing station and asked them to turn down the bass. This happens all the time. Why is it so hard to get the sound right?”

My nephew shook his head sadly. He DJ’s parties and plays piano requests at assisted living facilities—all in addition to his job and music studies. He also lives on the autism spectrum.

“Aunt Anne, it’s not the equipment. It’s you. We adjust the equipment to reach every corner of the hall,” he explained to me carefully, as though calming a petulant child. “You should never assume your hearing is like other people’s. Because it’s not.”

Autism is similar to childhood hunger in some ways. It is often an “invisible” challenge that millions in our country deal with every day. My experience with my family has been important to my work with No Kid Hungry by showing me how important it is to reach beyond our own experience and extend to others the respect they (and we all) deserve.

Quote graphic Autism is similar to childhood hunger in some ways. It is often an “invisible” challenge that millions in our country deal with every day."

This month marks the 10th annual Autism Acceptance Month. In my family, where some of us live on the autism spectrum or have sensory systems that might feel at home there, there’s a lot to celebrate. And learn.

For decades, scientists, researchers, parent activists, and medical staff focused on finding a “cure” to autism. Autism has been attributed to a staggering range of causes. Centuries ago, fairies were said to have swapped in their own babies for human ones.

Within my generation, so-called “refrigerator mothers” were blamed for causing the condition, all based on utterly fabricated research. Everything from vaccines to vitamin deficiencies to genetically modified foods have been cited. 

What we do know is this: Autism affects a range of human sensory systems differently, sometimes making experiencing the world, communicating, and navigating (so-called) social norms difficult.

Until fairly recently, autistic people themselves had little voice in the expanding autism awareness community. Fortunately, how we think about autism has moved from regarding autistic people as a walking diagnosis to embracing and respecting our neurological differences.

This helps all of us. Especially the individuals with autism who are injured or killed during police interactions. Police routinely misinterpret how autistic people express themselves or move--labeling them as dangerous when they are just being themselves.

The use of restraints in schools to “correct” behaviors by autistic students would never be allowed for neurotypical children. And typical recruitment and interview practices at many organizations screen out people on the autism spectrum.

For me, Autism Acceptance Month helps us celebrate the message my nephew generously gave to me on our way to dinner: No one is “normal”, but we can all do better at understanding our differences and respecting them.