Why We Need to Move From Autism Awareness to Autism Acceptance

written by BEA MOISE, BCCS
Source: Shutterstock
Source: Shutterstock

Autism awareness was an incredible movement, it made autism a household name. And while people may not have been directly impacted by autism, they could at least name a friend, family, or co-worker with a child on the spectrum. Now, the autism community wants to move from awareness to acceptance.

As a parent of a child with autism, and a cognitive specialist, I have first-hand experience of people being aware of autism but not accepting all that comes with it. Awareness was phase one, and we are now moving toward phase two. I want to talk about masking in the autism community, how communication styles differ for kids on the spectrum, and how we can move towards inclusion for individuals with autism. 

What Is Masking?

Masking is exactly what it sounds like; putting on a disguise to be something that is not intrinsically you. We all mask, to a certain degree, to blend into society or to be accepted, but some of us can understand that we are not being our authentic selves. Sometimes, when neurotypical people mask, it’s a choice. Masking for a neurodivergent person is survival.

An autistic individual can learn certain behaviors and suppress their true nature to be accepted into an environment. That environment can be school, public places, and, yes, even at home. Masking at home starts with a child displaying stereotypical autistic behavior rooted in sensory issues and being told to stop doing whatever they’re doing. Masking behavior is a trauma response, and when something is rooted in trauma, it can cause deep psychological issues in adult life.

Here are some behaviors that a child with autism may have been explicitly told to stop doing (mask) or have been mocked into masking. 

They may have been told to:

  • Stop stimming (behaviors like rocking, hand-flapping, and repeating words or phrases)
  • Stop spinning
  • Stop fidgeting

They also may have been told to:

  • Smile
  • Try harder to understand
  • Look at me in the eye

Some of these behaviors are rooted in sensory and self-regulating behaviors that decrease anxiety and can help a child focus and absorb the environment. However, when a child is repeatedly told to do something (or not to do something), they just learn to find another outlet and hide more of who they are because they are learning they are not accepted.

autism acceptance
Source: Shutterstock

How Communication Styles Differ for Children With Autism

I might be biased, but I am a huge fan of how autistic people communicate. They say what they mean, and they mean what they say. You don’t have to spend time or energy on decoding what they meant; they said it. 

Most individuals on the spectrum have black-and-white thinking, and because of this, their communication styles reflect those thoughts. It can be difficult for a child on the spectrum to see the gray in communication. Some autistic children develop the skill to speak, and they do so quite well, often being seen as little professors, while others struggle with speech, which might be non-verbal, preverbal, or limited verbal. In order to move toward autism acceptance, it helps to know the different communication styles.


Nonverbal communication is the strict use of communication devices to convey needs and wants. A nonverbal child can still gesture and physically point to things, objects, and people. A non-verbal child is not a child with a low IQ. They simply struggles with verbal communication due to other factors such as speech apraxia, a form of anxiety disorder, or delayed speech development.


Preverbal is when a child can make imitations of sounds and words but is not yet able to fully articulate all the sound or put it in a coherent form. Preverbal children can struggle with the same factors as nonverbal children as well as a lack of oral muscle development.

Limited Verbal

Limited Verbal children might use as few as 30 words and typically are able to communicate basic needs or make requests for desired items. A limited verbal child may not engage in social norms of speech, such as telling you about emotional needs or asking you about your day.


A verbal child is exactly that, a child who can communicate verbally. Verbal autism tends to be the one that I believe is the most misunderstood. The ability to speak is not directly related to communicating your needs or understanding communication. Verbal children tend to have issues with pragmatic language, for example:

  • Conversation skills such as turn taking
  • Asking questions that match the context
  • Sticking to the current topic
  • Communication that matches the setting or topic

Because they are verbal, they can seem rude or appear to have a lack of proper parenting skills; however, they just have a different way to communicate.

Accepting Different Forms of Communication

While some of these may be barriers to verbal speech, they are not barriers for communication. Communication can occur in the absence of speech. A child can use a device, hand gestures, and other means to communicate that look different. We want to accept these communication styles and not push verbal as the only source. Forcing a child to communicate one way will only limit their ability to communicate; it is not going to make their communication neurotypical. Acceptance understands that everyone has something to say. 

autism acceptance
Source: Shutterstock

Moving Toward Autism Acceptance and Inclusion

Prior to having a child on the spectrum, I don’t think I can recall thinking about inclusion. At least not in the way I think about it now. Lack of inclusion is something you are constantly faced with when you have a child with autism. You start to recognize how the world you live in can be restrictive to some. I don’t want my child to be an afterthought or an obligation to fulfill. I want him to have a sense of belonging—for people to want to include him because of the qualities he has—and not because he has autism. I am sure I am not the only mom who feels this way.

For those actively seeking to create an inclusive atmosphere, you are creating a place where a child does not have to mask or change their form of communication, and can feel accepted. Here are a few more ways to practice autism acceptance and inclusion:

  • Honor and respect all forms of communication
  • Create an inclusive sensory environment
  • Ask questions and do not judge
  • Listen and learn from autistic children and adults
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