April is Autism Awareness Month. While I truly hope Autism Awareness Month becomes Autism Acceptance Month, I realize there is a gaping awareness issue. Everyone is aware of autism in some capacity; they have heard the word at a cocktail party, they know someone either closely or very distantly, or have seen media in our hyper-connected world about autism.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 68 American children has an autism spectrum disorder. The key word here is children. While I am aware that autism is diagnosed in childhood for the majority of autistic individuals (myself included) and many crucial services are necessary in childhood, here's the thing: autistic people are not perpetual children like Peter Pan. For the most part, children become adults.
I used to say autistic women are children of a lesser god because they are underrepresented and there are diagnostic disparities between males and females on the autism spectrum. But now I realize the children of a lesser god are the autistic adults because we exit the mainstream consciousness the day we are no longer children.
When we typically think of somebody with autism, we don't picture adults. We don't imagine parents, our friends, college students, our coworkers and colleagues. We picture a child. I think that is the case with developmental disabilities generally; we see how such disorders impact development through childhood and adolescence because that is when most people mature physically and emotionally. For children with developmental disabilities, milestones may or may not be reached the ways that they are in typically developing humans.
You may now wonder: where are the autistic adults? We don't disappear, even if the mainstream culture seems to wipe us off the face of the planet. All of us don't suddenly retreat into caves or our parents' basements for all eternity. The average life expectancy in the United States is 78 years; meaning hypothetically, an autistic person spends about sixty years of his or her life as an autistic adult compared to the eighteen years spent in childhood, so we must certainly exist.
I was an autistic child. Then I became an autistic teenager. At 21, I am an autistic adult. I do not live underground. I do not have another person serve as my mouthpiece. I live independently in a big city. I am in law school. I am going to be employed over the summer, and be out and about in my community. I will be at the supermarket amongst you, buying groceries. I will be at the library, checking out books, studying, or doing research. Hopefully in the future, I will be in a courtroom as a lawyer, advocating for others. And you won't think twice about it, because your reflex will be that I do not look autistic, or even better: you will assume that adults with autism are just a part of the diversity fabric and are everywhere you are, too.
I recognize that I am very fortunate and that my situation and my life is not the norm for autistic adults. However, the norm should be adults on the spectrum out in the community engaging in meaningful activities and having productive, purposeful lives. A disproportionate amount of people with autism (81%) do not live independently or do not have the option to. The low full-time employment numbers are shocking. Only 36% of people on the spectrum pursue postsecondary education of any kind. We need these opportunities to exist, and not just for those who can blend into the neurotypical framework.
Yet here we are as a society, still directing all of our attention to the children who one day will spend the vast majority of their lives as adults. Saying we autistic adults need more services is the understatement of a generation. We need more opportunities in education so that we could get advanced degrees, or stay in the school system with support to learn life or employment skills past a certain age set by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
We need less discrimination and more opportunities in employment alongside peers with and without disabilities. Our society needs to be informed of the fact that accommodations for people with disabilities generally are creative solutions and not always expensive hassles. The public looks favorably upon places, corporations, and activities that invite, employ, and include people with disabilities. Everybody wins when we acknowledge and work towards accepting adults on the autism spectrum.
So instead of erasing us because it is easier to see us as children or to see our parents instead of us when we are adults, remember that we are out there with thoughts, opinions, hopes, and dreams as well. Remember to support us, be aware of us, and accept us. Together, we could make the world a more aware and more accepting place for people on the autism spectrum, and not just during their childhoods.