“Acceptance of autism” is seen by some as a passive and defeatist stance, by others as a positive first step towards the best future for your child, and by yet others as an un-necessary statement that implies either a negative view of autistic people, or un-necessary because “autism” is a meaningless word. These variations don’t simply imply different attitudes towards autism; they are also evident of different meanings of “acceptance.” To further complicate the matter, crucial explanatory / contextual words are often left out when people talk about their acceptance of autism (acceptance of the existence of autism, the challenges of autism, the permanence of autism, etc).
In this post I am going to attempt to tease apart some of these differences, in an effort to provide clarity to debates and arguments that include the question (or accusation) of whether someone has accepted autism or not.
The word “acceptance” often imports an inherently negative attitude towards whatever is being accepted. For example, you might accept cancer, but there would be no need to accept that birds sing beautiful songs – there is no “coming to terms with” the latter. In this way, “acceptance” is referring to a mental state.
In this initial sense of the word, some people will always take offense to the notion that one needs “acceptance” of autism; since it is not some negative thing that one has to come to terms with. However, discovering that someone has autism may initiate a grieving process, which need not be seen as a negative thing either; the grieving can be the adjustment and learning process through which a parent (for example) comes out the other end better informed and armed with the attitudes and skills that will help their child. So, coming out the other end of the grieving process might be called acceptance in this initial sense of “coming to terms” with autism, but the attitude that is arrived at may itself be particularly positive.
Which is to say – accepting autism might mean the person has moved from a negative attitude towards a decidedly positive one, or it may mean they saw autism as negative, and have accepted that negativity at a cognitive level (perhaps moved beyond denial).
“Acceptance” of autism can also refer to the existence of the condition. Autism is – after all – a contested term which is essentially defined by a grouping of symptoms designated from time to time by professionals in the field (rather than by, say, a simple blood-test or physical malformation). This type of acceptance can also be part of the initial meaning (accepting that person X has autism), since learning what autism is, is part of that process of coming to terms with person X having it. So accepting autism in this “existence” sense, can mean two distinct things; accepting that autism exists as a condition, and accepting that autism is the condition that person X has.
Once someone accepts autism in the “coming to terms” sense, and the “existence” sense (in both forms), there comes the question of what they do about it – here I mean specifically in regards to coping with the symptoms. Again, there is more than one meaning here: They might accept autism’s symptoms by their inaction (“this is autism, I fully accept it and its manifestations”), or they might accept it by their action (“this is autism, I fully accept the challenges it presents and are ready to meet all of them with open eyes, dedicated to the task.”) These two types of acceptance in regards to the symptoms, are quite opposite in the resulting activity caused by the attitude.
Closely related to the above version of in/activity autism acceptance re symptoms, is acceptance of autism as a permanent condition. Here, accepting autism gets tied into the question of cause and cure (whereas above it was re the symptoms). If you “accept” autism in this sense, then some will see you as giving up on the fight for a cure: “I accept autism / I accept that it can’t be changed, my son will always have it”. This is often thought to include inactivity re symptoms (the previous type of acceptance) – but this is not necessarily true. You might accept that autism can’t be removed (that the child will always have it), yet be extremely active in efforts to alleviate the severity of the symptoms.
The question of permanence – whether someone can be rid of autism or not – is separate from the acceptance of autism as inherent to the person. So, you might be attacked for not “accepting” your child – despite loving them, fighting for their rights, working on improving their skills, thinking it’s permanent, etc – because you haven’t accepted that your child is inseparable from autism. So if you were to say “I don’t think there will ever be a cure, and I love my child completely, but if there was a cure I would give it to my child”, you may very well be accused of not accepting them (often without further explanation of what it is you’re not accepting).
All of these variations might be meant when someone says “I accept autism” or “I don’t accept autism”. The context will not always make their meaning clear, and frequently people do not elaborate on what they mean by acceptance either. I have attempted to elucidate the most common meanings (categories) I have come across, and to show how there are also variations within those categories. So, to summarise thus far:
- “I accept autism” coming to terms sense: “I have come to terms with autism” (may be a process from negative to positive, or negative to accepting a negative).
- “I accept autism” existence sense: “Autism exists” (may be in relation to the condition, or/and in relation to someone having the condition).
- “I accept autism” in/activity sense re symptoms: In/actions re symptoms, reveal that they know this is autism, and their attitudes towards it. As in “my acceptance of autism is seen in how I am dedicated to the task of helping my autistic son” or “my acceptance of autism is seen in how I fully accept and do not fight its manifestations.”
- “I accept autism” permanence sense: “I accept that autism cannot be removed from the child”.
- “I accept autism” inherent sense: “I accept that autism is inherent to the child’s being / personality, so that to fight or feel badly towards autism, is to fight or feel badly towards the person affected.”
There is one more key element that I think must be mentioned to clarify debates and underlying emotions that involve the question of acceptance of autism. That is recognising categories that refer to superior knowledge; access to an objective truth that others must also reach before they too have seen the light. And categories that refer to the correct or superior attitude, making those who do not hold the same acceptance (or non-acceptance) as unworthy (morally, or as parents, etc).
Categories where superior or objective truth are part of the claim, are 2, 4 and 5. So if someone doesn’t accept autism in those meanings, then they might be told they are ignorant. Categories where superior attitude is part of the claim, are 1, 3 and again 5 (which is perhaps why 5 is so often debated and so emotional – it comes under both categories as I’ve presented them here). So, to not have (or to have) accepted autism under those meanings, can be seen as grounds for moral judgment.
There are obviously other ways in which people leave out the “of” or “that” when they talk about acceptance of autism (“acceptance that autism…”, “acceptance of autism’s…”), but many of the other examples I can think of, are either expressly stated at the time, or they fit into the broader categories captured in 1 to 5. For example, the claim “you need to accept that mercury causes autism” might be expressly stated, or comes particularly under category 4.
Have I messed up this analysis – made it overly complicated or unhelpful – have I overlooked some core categories or meanings? Probably! This is just one night’s musings. Do let me know how you would have changed or refined it. Regardless of its precision or gaps, I hope I have made it clear that the question of “accepting” autism – and the moral and intellectual judgments that come along with statements of acceptance – are not one question, but many, and to avoid un-necessary upset and confusion, it is always worth making it clear what is being accepted: “Acceptance of autism” does not say it all.