Leadership

Association Shifts Its Messaging from “Awareness” to “Acceptance”

By / Apr 2, 2021 (Kateryna/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

The Autism Society of America changed its April awareness campaign to one more focused on acceptance, with the goal of achieving more inclusion and belonging for people on the spectrum of autism and their families.

Raising awareness is frequently the rallying cry for organizations aiming to highlight central issues in their communities, empower members, and strengthen advocacy. But sometimes awareness isn’t enough.

April has long been known as “Autism Awareness Month,” but the Autism Society of America recently announced it is formally shifting references to “Autism Awareness Month” to “Autism Acceptance Month,” a significant move it hopes will lead to better inclusion and belonging for its community. The group is encouraging the media to reflect the change in their ongoing coverage.

“There’s more as a society we must do than just be aware of an issue,” said Christopher Banks, president and CEO of ASA. “We must accept individuals for who they are, celebrate their differences, and help them live lives as they wish more fully, completely, and robustly.”

The shift in terminology aims to spark change for people on the spectrum of autism and their families through improved support and opportunities in education, employment, accessible housing, affordable healthcare, and comprehensive long-term services.

ASA helped establish autism awareness in the 1970s and since then generations of individuals have been diagnosed with and thrived on the autism spectrum. Discussions among individuals on the spectrum, self-advocates, parents, and family members of people with autism led to a realization that the issue is more about acceptance, Banks said. “Acceptance leads to inclusion, and inclusion leads to belonging.”

Autism advocates have a longstanding history of using the term “acceptance” to more fully integrate the one in every 54 Americans living with autism into society.

There has never been a formal designation for the month, regardless of terminology, so as part of the shift ASA is leading an effort for the federal government to officially designate April as “Autism Acceptance Month.” ASA garnered support from the congressional Autism Caucus and spoke to members of the Biden administration urging them to officially designate the month.

ASA got buy-in for the change by encouraging its 75 affiliates across the country to include the new language and went to other national autism organizations and autistic self-advocacy groups. Some organizations have signed on, while others have not. Some have said it’s not enough. “And that’s OK,” Banks said. The goal was to get as much support as possible, without anyone objecting to the shift.

It’s not always easy to change wording, especially around such a pivotal issue. “The first thing you have to be is inclusive,” Banks said. That means talking to other organizations and being clear about why it’s a good idea. If they don’t support it, then find out what their concerns are so they don’t raise controversial issues, he advised.

“Change can be intimidating, but it can also be invigorating,” he said. “This is an extraordinary time to be part of an association like the Autism Society of America.”

Lisa Boylan

Lisa Boylan is a senior editor of Associations Now. More »

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