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Not just awareness, but acceptance: criticism of the Light It Up Blue campaign

Photo by Anna Lee Hoffman. The Light It Up Blue campaign has been used as the only autism awareness campaign in recent years at Wofford. However, other campaigns are often preferred by members of the autistic community.

I became aware of the changes in Autism Awareness Month at my old high school. They distributed “Buncombe County Schools Autism Acceptance” t-shirts, which featured a rainbow infinity symbol, instead of the puzzle piece I’d seen in the past.

The special education teachers explained that the infinity symbol was a more accepted symbol by members of the autistic community because the puzzle piece was seen as a symbol for “fitting in” and conformity with neurotypical people. 

They said that conformity was not the goal, but rather acceptance of the uniqueness of autistic people.

Not only were they using the infinity symbol, but they were also doing a “light it up red” campaign in protest of “light it up blue.” There are two reasons for the protest: one, it was created by Autism Speaks, and two, it erroneously conveyed the message that autism almost always affects boys only—hence, blue.

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As someone whose sister has autism, I was bothered by the idea that it was harder for women to get an autism diagnosis solely because of their gender. My sister, Annie, was able to get a diagnosis early on because her symptoms were very pronounced, but how hard would it be for someone who was neurotypical-passing?

I mentioned that Autism Speaks created the Light It Up Blue campaign, but many people don’t know the harmful messages about autism perpetuated by the organization.

In 2009, Autism Speaks released an ad titled “I Am Autism” that treated autism like a disease. It conveyed that autism works faster than pediatric AIDS, cancer and diabetes combined, and ensures that marriages will fail, financial ruin will ensue and that it will rob parents of their children and dreams.

Though other groups, such as Cure Autism Now and Defeat Autism Now!, existed prior to the formation of Autism Speaks, Autism Speaks is more high-profile, with a larger reach and budget.

In subsequent campaigns, such as a partnership with Sesame Street in the summer of 2019, the organization further propelled the myth that autism is like a devastating disease, and suggested that mourning is a proper response to autism diagnosis.

However, many people diagnosed with autism, particularly in adulthood, feel joy or relief with an autism diagnosis, as they feel that their unique behaviors finally make more sense. Often, a diagnosis means they can receive the understanding and/or accommodations that they need.

In more recent years, Autism Speaks has tried to be more inclusive by ditching its blue logo for a rainbow one. Still, it can’t erase the damage done by the views it spread. More on the harmful history of the organization can be read in “The biggest autism advocacy group is still failing too many autistic people” by Sarah Luterman of The Washington Post.

Even today, many “autism mommies” still choose to focus on how having an autistic child has ruined their lives, even claiming that vaccines possibly gave them autism.

Other, more tame autism mommies still feel as though they know their autistic child best, even better than other autistic people. They, and some other neurotypical people, can still be heard saying things like “it’s people with autism, not autistic people,” even when many autistic people have said they often prefer “autistic” phrased as a trait, not a disease.

I’ve had to read a lot of literature on neurodivergent and disabled people lately to help my parents. In May 2022, they are opening an ice cream shop in Asheville, NC, called Howdy Homemade Ice Cream, inspired by the store of the same name in Dallas, TX.

Howdy Homemade Ice Cream seeks to employ 80% disabled and/or neurodivergent people, tailoring their tasks to fit with their capabilities. They abandon the idea of forcing people to “fit in,” but are rather interested in accommodating their needs while still treating them as equal to the other 20%.

Because I’ll be working with them as a shift lead over the summer to get them off their feet, I’ve sought to learn as much as possible about how autistic people feel about certain campaigns, so I can enter the store with an open mind and listening ear.

That is why I feel some frustration with Wofford’s ongoing Light It Up Blue campaign, as well as the banner in the Mungo Student Center that features some puzzle pieces drawn on it.

My freshman year, shortly after we were sent home thanks to COVID-19, @whywofford posted an autism awareness month post almost identical to the ones on posters around campus today. I commented under the post that LIUB was outdated and there were other ways to show support, and my comment was deleted.

A former friend who has autism also decided to comment under the post, and allegedly their comment was deleted, and the admin contacted them to ask them not to spread “negativity” on their post, saying they had a son with autism and knew what they were talking about.

Now, of course, this is hearsay, but in the event that this did take place, I’m sure the admin meant well and thought they were supporting their son in the best way possible. However, I believe that to truly practice autism acceptance, one must be willing to listen and learn.

Step one, I believe, is to understand that it’s not just about autism awareness, but acceptance. You can be aware of autism and still bully people. You can be aware and still pity them. You can be aware and still treat autism like a disease. 

But to accept, you must understand that autism is not a blessing or a curse, but simply a trait that at least 2.3% of the US population possesses.

It seems as though Wofford’s current goal is to simply not bully autistic people. The banner in Mungo asks people to stop using the “r” slur. In my opinion, this is the bare minimum. 

It’s not impressive to not use slurs—it’s just what decent people do.

Though not saying the “r” slur is a start, as is being “aware” of autism, we cannot stop there. We can listen to autistic folks and hear their thoughts on symbolism, colors, slogans—anything. We can ask them if they hate their autism, and I can almost guarantee that most would say no.

Ultimately, our job is to create an environment where autistic people don’t feel like they’re expected to hate their autism because neurotypicals treat it like a disease. 

April needs to be a month of accepting autism—and any quirks or qualities that come with it—rather than just being aware of it.

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