Five things to know about autism acceptance

Autism is not just a blue puzzle piece, for a multitude of reasons

By Victoria Hansen,

You might have seen shirts, buttons and bracelets recently with a blue puzzle piece on them that promotes autism awareness. Companies promise to light it up blue to help raise awareness. 

This is the wrong way to talk about autism, according to my sister, Elizabeth Hansen, who has autism.* My sister brough up five important points regarding autism awareness. 

  1. Autism Speaks

Autism Speaks is probably one of the most well-known autism charities in the United States, partnering with companies such as Home Depot, Wilson and Chuck E. Cheese. The organization is controversial due to only having one autistic person on their board of directors; the 100 Day Took Kit, which suggests grieving for your autistic child; and treating autism as a disease.  

“They tend to use scare tactics in their advertisement to portray autistic people as mysterious, scary and sometimes outright dangerous,” Hansen said. 

  1. Puzzle Piece

The blue puzzle piece, both the logo of Autism Speaks and the symbol of autism in the US, is another controversial subject in the autistic community. The original puzzle piece was green with a crying child in the center, supposed to represent how autism was a “puzzling condition.” The piece is often blue, reinforcing the stereotype that autism only occurs in those assigned male at birth, leading for some advocates to suggest a rainbow infinity symbol instead.  

“Hot take, but I literally don’t care about that one,” said Hansen. 

  1. 3. Autism Awareness

“Oh, I’m very aware of autism,” Hansen says.  

As mentioned before, Autism Speaks, the puzzle piece and the Light it Up Blue campaign are all symbols of autism awareness. When writing for the ASAN blog, Kassiane S. says that awareness works with fear and stereotypes, while acceptance takes work.  

“You can say ‘Yep, I’m aware of autism, I’ve checked the box,’” Hansen said. “Acceptance (again, to me) means keeping a baseline amount of input from people who are in the community and including them/recognizing their humanity.” 

  1. Applied Behavioral Therapy

“Applied behavior analysis [ABA] is, in my personal experience as a former patient of one such program, effectively dog training for children,” Hansen said. “It focuses on making children ‘normal,’ getting rid of ‘self-injurious behaviors’ (often things as simple as completely harmless stims), and averting crises, as opposed to more helpful tactics for learning how to cope day to day.”  

ABA is the only autism intervention that is universally covered by insurance and Medicaid and consists of reinforcing non-autistic behavior in autistic people. Proponents say that ABA helps autistic people gain skills to perform independent tasks, while opponents say that it devalues their autistic identity as something to be cured and does not teach coping skills.  

  1. Masking and Suicidal Ideation

“People with autism are taught at a young age to hide their symptoms, commonly known as masking,” Hansen said. “Whenever I was struggling with my mental health, nobody else really noticed due to this. I would go to an event, look like I was having fun, then come home and say I didn’t enjoy it.”  

Masking is a common trait in autistic people and has been linked to suicidal ideation in multiple studies.  

“I learned to ‘mask’ out of common courtesy, which isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but I never learned when it was okay to show negative emotions because I was so used to hiding them,” Hansen said. 

*Person-first (person with autism) vs. identity-first language (autistic person) is a somewhat controversial topic in the autistic community. While identity-first language is more popular, Hansen asked to be referred to using person-first, saying “I’m honestly not picky to be honest.”