April is traditionally dedicated to the subject of autism. In the past, the phrase “Autism Awareness Month” was used in connection with this month, but Tom Flis, behavioral services manager at Sheppard Pratt, says that a current movement is aimed at focusing on autism acceptance. Learn more about the significance of autism acceptance and find more resources for learning about autism on the Sheppard Pratt website.
BC: Why was the name changed from “Autism Awareness Month” to “Autism Acceptance Month”? What is the distinction?
TF: The distinction between awareness and acceptance is that the former looks to increase society’s knowledge, or awareness, of autism whereas the latter is a call for action. There has been a pretty successful campaign in increasing people’s awareness of autism over the past two decades. Now that more people are aware, what do we do as a community to help our peers, students, colleagues or family members?
Through acceptance, we integrate people with autism into our lives and society whether it be at home, school, work, or out in the community. Individuals with autism are capable of so much. They may need members in the community to make adjustments that bring out the best in these individuals. Naturally, this is what we should be doing with anyone … striving to bring out the best in everyone. It’s not about how we make other people fit a norm or mold. It’s how we all adapt and welcome everyone into our daily lives. At this point, it appears that “acceptance” is the next logical step.
BC: What aspects of autism should people learn about and accept?
TF: I think people should learn about the social and sensory aspects of individuals with autism. Some individuals may not socialize much or may not be interested in the informal social outings of work or school. There may be some that actually seek out these things but have difficulties integrating into such activities or may be afraid to do so. I think it’s important to get to know the people around you and respect their boundaries or make changes to find ways to include others.
Likewise, some individuals with autism may find touch, loud volume, crowds, bright lights, etc. as being aversive. Again, knowing that high-fives or handshakes can cause someone distress is important and easy for one to accept and not take personally. You will find individuals with autism in all parts of society across careers and academic settings. They get married, have and raise children, and have successes and problems like we all do. A lot of these individuals are successful because they have a community that supports them.
It’s important to note that the examples given here are not true of everyone with autism. Many have very little sensory aversion and can be quite social. There’s a saying in the autism community: Once you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. We’re all different, and that is absolutely true of all individuals with autism as well.
BC: What should parents and others be aware of when it comes to autism acceptance?
TF: A lot of parents may want to shelter their child from the community for various reasons, and I tell them to rethink this strategy. Parents should try to incorporate their child into all activities their community has to offer, especially if their child has an interest in it. This could be sports, certain classes being offered or other community events. Parents can talk to coaches or teachers ahead of time to discuss the needs of their child and talk to other parents as well during these events. This dialogue promotes both awareness and acceptance, and I think most parents will find how welcoming the community can be the more they know.
Tom Flis, MS, BCBA, LBA, LCPC, is the behavioral services manager at Sheppard Pratt Health System. He oversees the inpatient behavioral programs at both the Ellicott City and Towson campuses. He is a board-certified, licensed behavior analysis and licensed clinical professional counselor with more than 15 years of experience working with children and adults diagnosed with a developmental disability.
Special thanks to Baltimore’s Child writer Laura Farmer, who contributed to this article.