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Moving Beyond Awareness: the case for Neurodiversity Acceptance

Katarina Aldeguer, Bachelor of Business Administration with the degree of Bachelor of Commerce - Professional Accounting

April was Autism Awareness Month; six weeks ago, it was Neurodiversity Week. Yet by the time I graduate at the end of this Semester - fingers crossed - I'll be one of only eight per cent of Autistic Australians with a Bachelor's Degree. For comparison, I've been twice as unlikely to graduate than someone else with any other kind of disability and four times more unlikely than someone without any disability.

The eight per cent figure came from the 2018 ABS Census Data on Autism and Education. I mentioned this figure at a Student Focus Group in February, as we were asked why disabled students are graduating at lower rates than the general population. So we're reporting an overall satisfactory experience, yet we're not reaching the end of the line. I was then invited to speak during Neurodiversity Week to the Vice Chancellors' (Academic) Office and their Diversity & Inclusion Committee.

These Committee staff members represent the departments that many neurodivergent students and I clash with regularly – Wellbeing, Accessibility, and Psychological Services. It was both uplifting and concerning that, while they were taken aback by the figures and anecdotes I shared, they were unaware of this information any earlier. I'm glad that they began the process to start hearing stories of marginalized students and even invited one to speak to the changemakers of the University. At the same time, I believe that Awareness can only go so far when the goal is to achieve inclusion, reconciliation, and Acceptance.

For example, I brought to their attention that a significant factor preventing neurodivergent folk from completing their degrees is educational trauma. Many of us are educated in systems that do not – and refuse to – accommodate neurodivergent children. As we grow into adults and attempt tertiary education, the scars of forced assimilation into a world we do not understand repeatedly rear their ugly heads. They appear when tutors mark us for lacking eye contact throughout tutorials or presentations – despite knowing our conditions in our IEAPs. They occur when our chosen names do not match across all University databases. They then appear again when we are given narratives in lectures that all autistic people lack empathy and cannot function in society.

However, Awareness is sharing anecdotes and statistics on the impacts of long-term systematic discrimination. Awareness is giving a speech to the heads of departments whose systems consistently require appeals and the assistance of Student Advocacy to overcome. Awareness does not equate to change – it is only the beginning of the journey towards the neurodiversity equivalent of multiculturalism. That is, to celebrate, accommodate, and be flexible with the differences of thought, expression, and communication, that not all of us think and see the world in the same colours.

I believe that the month should be changed from 'Autism Awareness' to 'Autism Acceptance' Month. However, Acceptance does not mean a begrudging tolerance. Instead, it'd be a Radical Acceptance that we are just as complex in how we perceive the world akin to the complexity of our cultural, sexual, and gender identities. For example, if we accepted Autism as one way to perceive the world, the pseudoscience panic that 'vaccines cause autism' would not have taken such a grip in the first world. I imagine that measles, rubella, and other 'old-world' diseases would remain in the past than flourish in our towns and cities. This is why I believe that a radical acceptance of neurodiversity is critical to advocate for, as Awareness has repeatedly led to inaction at best and infliction of harm at its worst.

While we should continue to have months and weeks dedicated to Neurodiversity, I believe we’ve reached the point of exhausting Awareness. We need to move towards Acceptance, Reconciliation, and Celebration of all forms of Neurodiversity. It’s only then that we can make tangible, systemic changes to allow more neurodivergent students to graduate at equitable rates to neurotypical students.


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