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Home » White House Embraces Autism ‘Acceptance’ Over ‘Awareness’

White House Embraces Autism ‘Acceptance’ Over ‘Awareness’

White House Embraces Autism 'Acceptance' Over 'Awareness'

The White House was lit blue in 2017 as part of Autism Speaks’ “Light It Up Blue” campaign promoting autism awareness. This year the president chose to designate a special day for autism acceptance as opposed to awareness. (Lincoln Photography)

In a month that’s long been associated with autism awareness, the president is part of a growing shift toward emphasizing acceptance instead.

For the first time, President Joe Biden used a proclamation this week to designate “World Autism Acceptance Day,” which was held on Tuesday. In previous years, the date had been dubbed “World Autism Awareness Day.”

“I call upon all Americans to learn more about autism to improve early diagnosis, to learn more about the experiences of autistic people from autistic people, and to build more welcoming and inclusive communities to support people with autism,” Biden wrote in the proclamation touting government efforts to address the needs of people with autism through education, employment and other means.

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The language shift comes at the urging of autism advocates, according to Kim Musheno, vice president of public policy at the Autism Society of America.

“We made the switch in 2021. I tried to get the president to switch in the proclamation for the past two years without success until this year,” Musheno said.

The movement toward autism “acceptance” first emerged as a grassroots effort in 2011 spearheaded by Paula Durbin-Westby, a self-advocate who created a Facebook event titled “Autism Acceptance Day.” At the time, she said she was inspired to act after hearing from others on the spectrum who were frustrated like she was by awareness activities focused on soliciting donations.

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network signed on to the new terminology in 2013 and other groups including TASH, the National Council on Independent Living, Easter Seals and the National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities have supported “acceptance” efforts in April at various times since then.

“While of course we want people to know about autism, the term ‘awareness’ can have negative connotations, implying that the thing we should be aware of is something to be scared of or panic about,” said Zoe Gross, director of advocacy at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. “By contrast, autism acceptance is about creating a society that accommodates and includes autistic people in all aspects of life.”

Globally, the United Nations designated April 2 as World Autism Awareness Day in 2007 and continues to use that language.

Likewise, Autism Speaks still references “World Autism Awareness Day” in fundraising appeals and other efforts, but the group is also now highlighting what it’s calling “World Autism Month” in April.

“When it comes to true inclusion, awareness and acceptance of autism go hand-in-hand. The reality is that in many countries around the world — and in many communities in the U.S. — awareness and understanding of ASD is still sadly lacking,” the group said in a statement. “World Autism Month is an opportunity to ensure the autistic community is fully supported, championed and celebrated. Autism Speaks is working towards a world where total acceptance of autistic people — beyond simple awareness — is the standard.”

White House officials did not respond to a request for comment about the language change.

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