April 2 will no doubt bring you many a headline and call to do various things in the name of autism awareness because the United Nations designated it a decade ago as "World Autism Awareness Day."
Ten years ago, heightening autism awareness may still have been necessary. But like all such days, the event has devolved into yet another feel-good moment with low-threshold investment: don a ribbon, change an avatar, put on some color that signals your awareness of Condition X. Dust off hands, pat self on back, and go about the rest of your business, secure in the knowledge that everyone will know how truly awesome you are as you telegraph your awareness of Condition X.
Days like this almost invariably degenerate into a posturing competition that extends even to the state level to see who can be the most ostentatiously committed to showing commitment without really committing to anything.
In the case of autism, the exhortation of the day, courtesy of Autism Speaks, will be to "light it up blue," and powers that be around the globe will cause world-famous landmarks to do just that. Because nothing says, "I really care about autistic people" like going to the trouble to install blue lights on tall buildings and then flipping them on for a few hours. Presumably, the world will then be led to wonder, "Why is the Leaning Tower of Pisa blue today?" and eagerly turn to the Internet for answers, learning for the first time that a condition called "autism" exists. Awareness achievement unlocked. All done.
But you can do some real work that can make a real difference for autistic people (read here on using "autistic"), something that goes beyond sartorial expression, social media tricks or lightbulb purchases.
First, consider not "lighting it up blue" or wearing blue (unless, of course, you just want to wear blue like any other day) because that is a token of support for Autism Speaks, an organization that has explicitly and implicitly spent years stigmatizing and demonizing autistic people while it rakes in money from well-meaning folks who don't understand how harmful it is to the people it claims to help. Some counter-campaigns that autistic people have initiated include "Tone It Down Taupe" and "Red Instead."
Second, you will encounter many a call for "autism awareness." Have you heard about autism yet? OK. So you're aware. Step one is low, and you've mastered it. Now for the steeper climb.
For autistic people, awareness is not the goal at this point--acceptance is. Certainly, in the last 20 years, enough headlines have used the word "autism" to make people aware that it exists (here's a sampling from the last week alone). But what do people who aren't part of the autism community (and even some who are) really understand about autistic people? Because without understanding someone, getting to the critical, important, life-changing step of accepting them is impossible.
And the goal is autism acceptance. To be clear, acceptance, as Webster's defines it, is "the action or process of being received as adequate or suitable, typically to be admitted into a group." Have you admitted autistic people into your group--your school, your workplace, your home, your social circles, your ways of understanding? If not, you haven't conquered the acceptance step yet.
Conquering that step means taking autistic people as they are, learning from them, and listening to them. That takes work. It takes more than pulling something blue to wear out of your closet or buying blue lightbulbs at Home Depot and feeling better about yourself. More than dropping a quarter into a Toys R Us coffee can. More than clickphilanthropy or adding a profile ribbon. If you really care or want to make yourself genuinely care, you'll do this work. Here's why:
Autism Speaks founder Bob Wright is described as a "longtime friend" of Donald Trump. Indeed, and no surprise, the White House will "light it up blue" on April 2. Trump has persistently and rigidly repeated again and again untruths about autism epidemiology and causation. It is no surprise that Wright is an avid Trump supporter who tweeted during the election that Trump was the "best choice for republicans (sic) and all Americans!"
Wright left a few Americans out of that calculation, most of them autistic, a group that many of Trump's policies will harm immeasurably. One of the biggest threats is to science and evidence-based decision making. Trump is no fan of evidence, and for reasons that are unclear, he's long been a true believer in autism conspiracy theories. One of his few confirmed charitable donations was made to Generation Rescue, an antivaccine organization founded by Wright's daughter. Since then, Trump has doubled down on his earlier signals of buying into autism causation conspiracy theories and teased a partnership with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., one of the most hyperbolic and irrational antivaccine personalities in the US.
Meanwhile, while the man who occupies the Oval Office (well, a few hours a week, anyway, maybe) waves all of the flags in the conspiracy theorist's semaphore manual, he seeks to siphon away money from scientific and education endeavors that do or could do autistic people the most good.