Acceptance and Awareness – Watching our Words

Acceptance and Awareness – Watching our Words

By: Dr. Raymond Heipp

In the 1980s, the band Missing Persons had a song called “Words.”  Within that song, the refrain contained the line “What are words for?”  That song popped into my mind when I recently was invited into a discussion about language and its uses with our exceptional community.  I was asked which was more appropriate; person-centric or condition-specific language.  Both of the sides had amazing points as to why their argument was more appropriate.  So rather than begin with that point, I started with the change from this month being designated Autism Acceptance Month from what had been Autism Awareness Month. 

This changeover began several years back and has come to the forefront over the last two years.  People often ask me, “Why did this change?  Don’t they both mean the same thing?”  The reality is that they mean two different thought processes and that it is not simply a matter of semantics.  When we originally spoke of “Autism Awareness,” many people had not heard that term or only thought of it in a pejorative sense.  In the minds of those people, individuals with autism “could not function in the world.”  It was a myopic view based in a lack of information.  The idea of “Autism Awareness” focused on bringing information to all groups that provided a strong foundation from which people could understand the Autism Spectrum and dispel some of the myths that had been passed along. 

The idea of Autism Acceptance came about as we saw more individuals on the Autism Spectrum unable to get jobs or restricted from full access to inclusive programs, even if the ability to succeed was there.  We move from the thought of wanting to have people on the outside understand what Autism was to wanting the outside world to accept all individuals based on their abilities.  Dr. Temple Grandin put it best when she mentioned in some of her talks that individuals on the Autism Spectrum often made excellent accountants or quality control managers because of their ability to have hyper-focus and strict attention to details.  Yet, the outside world was not as willing to accept someone who had a condition listed next to their name or had a unique way of interacting with others.

Thus, Acceptance here is much more important than Awareness.  Acceptance is a validation of the individual and that individual’s abilities.  This is essential to understanding the individual for who they are.  Awareness only points to a knowledge of a condition.  That knowledge is far-too-often generalized with an assumption that everyone with that condition is exactly like others in with the same condition.  There is not the push to understand the individual and what is brought to the table by them.  Because of that, some very intelligent and capable individuals are pushed to the side.  We must be willing to accept the individual for who they are!

So when we look at the difference between Acceptance and Awareness, we see that the distinction lies upon where our focus needs to be.  Acceptance lies within the specifics of looking at an individual.  Awareness looks at the general understanding of a condition.  Thus, the words do have importance and how we use them will make a difference in the lives of many.

So many of you are going back to my opening paragraph and asking what my response to the original question was.  Don’t worry, both of those groups were wondering the same thing after I shared this distinction of Acceptance and Awareness.  I do think they were shocked when I explained to them that they were both right. 

When we speak of person-centric language, we are highlighting the individual over the condition and keep our focus on their abilities.  So that should be the only choice, right?  On the contrary, condition-specific language is becoming more widely used by the individuals with those conditions as a way of sharing a characteristic of who they are.  This was made very clear to me by a gentleman who explained to me at a meeting with adults in a training program that he was disabled and that was part of who he was.  He was proud of this fact and let me know that to him it meant that it was okay to do things differently than others.  He worked in a restaurant and shared with me that he didn’t do things like his co-workers, but still did them well.  What a great way to look at life!

Please watch your words and understand the deeper context within what they communicate to others.  My final answer to those groups after letting them know they were both right was to let them know when I spoke of individuals, when possible, I simply used their first name.  That is done out of respect to them and keeps me focused on who they are.

Happy Autism Acceptance Month!


Posted in SH Special Education Today Newsletter