Should You Celebrate Autism "Awareness" or "Acceptance"? (2023)

April is Autism Awareness Month, and April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day. During the entire month of April, you'll hear about autism-oriented fundraisers, autism awareness presentations, autism-friendly happenings, and special opportunities to recognize people on the autism spectrum. You'll also notice that most people involved with these activities are wearing the color blue. In fact, you might even notice buildings (including major top architectural icons) "lighting it up blue" on April 2.

Most of the people who celebrate Autism Awareness Day or Month are not autistic. Instead, they are parents, organizers, and others who care for or about autism. But where are the autistic self-advocates? In many cases, they are actively avoiding the celebrations.

Different responses to Autism Awareness Day and Month come about as a result of the history of the events, the intent behind the events, and the people who created them.

Read more about the top autism charities that deserve your support.

Should You Celebrate Autism "Awareness" or "Acceptance"? (1)

The Origins of Autism Awareness

Autism, as a diagnosis, has changed radically over the past several decades. Back before the 1990s, autism was not considered to be a spectrum disorder. Thus anyone with an autism diagnosis had relatively severe symptoms. Many professionals believed that autism was a result of poor parenting; the famous psychologist Bruno Bettelheim wrote extensively about what he called"refrigerator" mothering. An adult with autism was typically thought to require an institutional setting.

The movie "Rain Man," with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise, provides a good insight into autism in those days. Hoffman's character has been institutionalized for most of his life, despite his verbal and intellectual abilities. Leaving the institution is a frightening experience; he requires full-timecare from his brother in order to successfully navigate the outside world.

Enter Dr. Bernard Rimland. A psychologist with an autistic son, he debunked the "refrigerator mother" theory and created an organization called The Autism Society. The Autism Society began its first nationwide awareness program in the early 1970s. It was adopted by Congress in 1984. The iconic autism awareness ribbon was designed in 1999.

(Video) Beyond Autism Awareness... To Acceptance And Appreciation! (World Autism Awareness Day 2021)

Autism Speaks and Autism Awareness

In 2005, Autism Speaks was founded.Created and funded by the extremely wealthy and influential Bob and Suzanne Wright (who have a grandson with autism), the organization quickly became the major autism-related non-profit in the world. With their strong connections, the Wrights were able to create very high profile autism awareness programs, including:

  • World Autism Awareness Day (April 2), adopted by the United Nations in 2007
  • Light It Up Blue, an international effort to light iconic buildings in blue to raise awareness of autism

Autism Speaks sells blue T-shirts, provides resources to groups interested in fundraising or running autism-related programs, and also promotes fundraising marches and events during the month of April. Institutions ranging from museums and zoos to libraries, schools, and even businesses run special events during that period.

Events That Take Place During Autism Awareness Month

Autism Awareness Month kicks off on April 2 (to avoid April Fool's Day) with World Autism Awareness Day. On that day, you can expect to see an awful lot of blue. People in blue T-shirts, homes with blue lights, and personal profiles with a blue puzzle piece will be everywhere. There will also be media coverage of autism, special stories about autistic people, and promotion of merchandise featuring the autism puzzle piece icon.

Look for buildings lit with the blue light. In the past, some iconic buildings that have been lit up blue include the Empire State Building in New York City, the Sydney Opera House in Australia, and the CN Building in Toronto.

During the month of April you'll find, among other things:

  • special "sensory friendly" days at all kinds of venues, from movie theaters to amusement parks
  • autism awareness events at schools, community centers, hospitals, and elsewhere
  • fundraising marches and events across the United States and beyond

Why Doesn't Everyone Love Autism Awareness Month?

Because Autism Speaks has become such a large and ubiquitous organization, it essentially "owns" autism awareness month. Television specials, telethons, multimedia advertising, and other forms of outreach are all part of the event.

But Autism Speaks has had—and continues to have—a very questionable relationship with the autism community. Both autistic self-advocates and many groups of parents have had issues with their funding priorities, governance, and perspectives on the causes of autism. While some issues have gone away (such as the presentation of autism as an evil force stealing babies from their carriages), others are still of concern.

Just a few of the issues people have with Autism Speaks:

  • For most of its existence, Autism Speaks had no autistic people on its board. From time to time very high functioning individuals have gotten involved, but at least one individual resigned after a short tenure.
  • Autism Speaks, from its very inception, has been about "curing" what many autistic self-advocates (and quite a few parents) feel is a set of personal qualities rather than a "disease." Thus, instead of accepting children and adults with autism, Autism Speaks has been all about "fixing" them. Over time, many programs have emerged that are more supportive of people living with autism—but bad feelings have remained.
  • The Wright's daughter, Katie, was convinced her son's autism resulted from vaccinations. Thus, despite numerous large, well-documented studies to the contrary, Autism Speaks put quite a bit of research money into yet more digging into vaccines as a cause of autism. This focus has nearly disappeared at this point, but it is still a sore point.
  • The vast majority of the many resources created by Autism Speaks are intended, not for people with autism, but for their parents and families.

For many families, particularly those who benefit from or support programs at Autism Speaks, Autism Awareness Month is a very important observance. For those with a different "neurodiverse" perspective, however, Autism Acceptance may be a better choice.

(Video) Autism Acceptance vs Autism Awareness

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(Video) Why Autism Acceptance Not Awareness, According to People on the Autism Spectrum

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  1. DeVilbiss EA, Lee BK. Brief report: trends in u. S. National autism awareness from 2004 to 2014: the impact of national autism awareness month.J Autism Dev Disord. 2014;44(12):3271-3273.

    doi: 10.1007/s10803-014-2160-4

  2. Evans B. How autism became autism: The radical transformation of a central concept of child development in Britain.History of the Human Sciences. 2013;26(3):3-31. doi: 10.1177/0952695113484320

  3. van Rosmalen L, van der Veer R, van der Horst FC. The nature of love: Harlow, Bowlby and Bettelheim on affectionless mothers.Hist Psychiatry. 2020;31(2):227-231. doi: 10.1177%2F0957154X19898997

  4. The Autism Society. Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going The Autism Society’s Proud History.

  5. Autism Speaks. About Us.

  6. United Nations. Press Conference By Qatar on World Autism Day.

  7. Autism Speaks. World Autism Month FAQ.

  8. The New York Times. Autism Debate Strains a Family and its Charity.

    (Video) Autism Awareness vs. Acceptance: What's the Difference?

(Video) Autism Month 2017: Celebrate diversity, Promote Acceptance


Why is it important to spread awareness about autism? ›

With greater public awareness on autism, it can help not just individuals with autism, but also make lives easier for families and caregivers. In addition, we also enrich our society by accepting the wonderful differences that we all have.

Why do we celebrate autism awareness? ›

Using the Day to Appreciate Autism

World Autism Awareness Day helps neurotypical individuals recognize that the world is a better place when we all understand neurodivergence, like autism spectrum disorder, and work to accommodate these differences.

Why is acceptance for autism important? ›

Where awareness tell us about autism as a condition, acceptance shines a light on real autistic people, living real lives. By accepting autistic children and adults as they are, and celebrating their strengths, talents and contributions to society, we open the door to compassion and understanding.

How do you show autism acceptance? ›

Moving from autism awareness to acceptance: Tips to promote acceptance and inclusion in everyday life
  1. Diversify your child's bookshelf. ...
  2. Instead of dismissing, try educating. ...
  3. Offer support through advocacy. ...
  4. Use language appropriate to the individual. ...
  5. Focus on strengths, not just challenges. ...
  6. Expand your social circle.

How do we celebrate autism awareness? ›

5 Ways to Celebrate Autism Awareness All Month Long
  1. Recommend and go to Autism-Friendly Businesses! ...
  2. Raise awareness with what you wear. ...
  3. Learn about fantastic people with autism. ...
  4. Read a new autism blog. ...
  5. Recommend your favorite autism books or check out some new ones.
Apr 2, 2022

Why is public awareness important? ›

Public awareness is important to increase enthusiasm and support, stimulate self-mobilisation and action, and mobilise local knowledge and resources. Raising political awareness is important as policy makers and politicians are key actors in the policy process of adaptation.

What is the difference between acceptance and awareness? ›

Awareness is simply realizing that someone has a challenge. Acceptance is engaging in a real conversation with them. Awareness is seeing someone with a disability do something you maybe didn't expect. Acceptance is telling them they are awesome, cheering them on or working together with them.


1. Celebrate Autism Acceptance Month!
2. Ask an Autistic #22 - Why Acceptance? Autism Acceptance Month
(Amythest Schaber)
3. How to Celebrate Autism Acceptance Day (and Month)
(The Rachelistic Channel)
4. World Autism Awareness Week: A message to the public...
(National Autistic Society)
5. World Autism Awareness Day (April 2) - Why do we celebrate Autism Awareness Day?
(8SA - Books, Biographies and Literature Summary)
6. Why Autism Awareness Month shifted to Autism Acceptance Month
(CBS Los Angeles)
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