By Amanda Morin
As we headed into what has been traditionally known as Autism Awareness Month, it’s the first year I don’t feel a pit of dread in my stomach. In part, that’s because of the National Autism Society of America’s push to make April “Autism Acceptance Month.”
I have three children, two of whom are loudly and proudly #ActuallyAutistic, and for many years I’ve wondered what it is we want people to be aware of when it comes to autism? Is it that autistic people like my sons exist? Is it that autism exists? That’s not in question. What is in question is whether other people accept them for the neurodiverse people they are.
But that’s only part of the reason I don’t feel as much dread this year. It’s also because neurodiversity is opening its aperture to include people like me, who aren’t autistic, but share some of the same ways of thinking and learning differently.
The way my extreme difficulty with sensory processing, social anxiety, and thinking differently presents has led to a diagnosis of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). But I think it’s possible that under other circumstances, evaluated by a different clinician, in a different time, I, too, would have been diagnosed as having autism.
The specific diagnosis doesn’t matter to me; what matters is being able to say I’m neurodiverse. To stand loud and proud next to my sons to make sure we live in a world that sees neurodiversity through an asset-based lens, not a deficit-based one. A world that recognizes learning and thinking differently is a variation of human experience, and one that recognizes autism is only one of the diagnoses people who identify as neurodiverse carry.
It’s been encouraging to see conversations about neurodiversity starting to include ADHD in addition to autism. They often occur together, but the omission of these types of differences in the realm of neurodiversity has left people like my younger son, who is autistic and has ADHD, subject to people understanding only part of who he is.
That matters not just for him, but also for the one in five people in the U.S. like me, who learn and think differently because they have variations in how the brain processes information. Those variations can affect attention, sensory processing, reading, writing, math, and other skills. On its own, processing information differently may not be a concern, but because of the way our schools, workplaces, and communities are set up, they impact people’s ability to thrive in some aspect of their lives.
These disabilities are invisible in many ways, and the result is that disabled people like me have often been overlooked. There’s still a deep misunderstanding of differences other than autism and ADHD and how they affect people. In fact, according to research done by the National Center for Learning Disabilities, fifty percent of people believe that learning disabilities don’t exist. Forty-eight percent of parents believe incorrectly that kids outgrow them, and thirty-three percent of classroom teachers and educators believe these challenges are just laziness.
Over the past year, it’s been encouraging to see movements for racial, social, and economic justice accelerate to improve the lives of people who have not had equal rights or opportunities for so long. It’s thrilling that the White House named a disability policy director to sit on its Domestic Policy Council, elevating disability to the same policy level as other things that impact everyday life.
Yet for all this progress, as someone who works to promote inclusion, it’s important to me that learning and thinking differences aren’t overlooked in other spaces: corporate diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, progressive education initiatives, and our society at large. Moving from awareness to acceptance is a great start. At the same time, there’s also room to start moving toward action.
So, how do we include other types of neurodiversity in acceptance months and employer-recruitment initiatives without devaluing the tremendous strides the #ActuallyAutistic community has made not only toward acceptance, but also toward celebrating difference?
Personally, I think the answer lies in the question, the same way what has been learned from the fight for racial equality and desegregation informed the disability rights movements in a way that lets us say that disability rights are civil rights, too. It’s because of the work that has come before us that we can begin to make room for other differences in the broader conversation about neurodiversity.
This Autism Acceptance Month, I want to thank the loudly proud autistic community for paving the way for people like me to come out as neurodiverse. I’m ready to celebrate the ways in which we think differently and join forces in pushing forward the assumption that my family and I should be accepted as the neurodiverse people we are.
About Amanda Morin
Associate Director, Thought Leadership & Expertise
Amanda Morin is an author, parent advocate, and mom to kids who learn differently. She worked as a classroom teacher and as an early intervention specialist for 10 years. In her thought leadership role at Understood, she leads efforts to build internal knowledge about learning and thinking differences, works toward establishing Understood as an authority in the field, and ensures that the organization’s work is evidence-based and reflects unique expertise and innovative perspectives.
Amanda has been working in print and digital media as a writer and editor for over 15 years, empowering parents and educators to affirm the pivotal roles they play in children’s education. She played an integral role in launching Understood.org in 2014. Some of Amanda’s other clients over the years have included Education.com, Parenting Special Needs Magazine, VeryWell (formerly known as About.com), and Popsugar Moms.
During her years as an early childhood educator, she taught kindergarten and worked with infants, toddlers, and preschoolers with disabilities. She provided education and training to parents of children with disabilities and led multidisciplinary teams in developing and implementing Individual Family Service Plans.
Morin received a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Maine and special education advocacy training from the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates. She holds a certificate in Universal Design for Learning from the UDL Implementation and Research Network.
She is the author of five books: The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education, The Everything Kids’ Learning Activities Book, On-the-Go Fun for Kids: More Than 250 Activities to Keep Little Ones Busy and Happy — Anytime, Anywhere!, What Is Empathy? A Bullying Storybook for Kids, and Adulting Made Easy: Things Someone Should Have Told You About Getting Your Grown-Up Act Together.
Morin is a member of Matan’s Professional Advisory Board. She and her family reside in coastal Maine.