This Autism Awareness Month, Let’s Remember that our Movements are Interconnected

By Aaron Bishop and Wade Henderson

This Autism Awareness Month, many self-advocates have been making their voices heard and shifting the autism conversation from awareness to acceptance.

They are seeking inclusion, participation, self-determination, and respect—rights that should sound familiar to any advocate for civil and human rights.

The stories shared this month by people with autism, often using #AcceptAllOfUs, also illustrate the diversity of the autistic community. People with autism reflect a variety of cultures, languages, faiths, genders, ages, sexualities, and more. Each of these can affect how a person experiences autism or any other disability.

Similarly, living with a disability can shape a person’s experience with, for example, faith or culture.

As advocates for civil and human rights, we must recognize that the challenges our communities face are very often intertwined.

For example:

  • Though there is no evidence to suggest that Black and Latino children experience autism at lower rates than White children, recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that these children are less likely to be diagnosed and that they receive developmental evaluations at a later age. Disparities in health care access, a distrust of the medical profession, and a lack of culturally or linguistically competent services can all create additional disparities in families’ experiences long after a diagnosis is made. Meanwhile, restrictions or cuts to long term services and supports can have a disproportionate impact on older adults and people with disabilities from low-income, minority, and rural communities with little access to alternative supports. To support people of diverse backgrounds and faiths with autism, we need to address both the availability and the cultural and linguistic competency of community services and supports.
  • LGBT rights advocates are working to counter the devastating effects that family rejection can have on LGBT youth. How can we build on these efforts to support LGBT youth with disabilities facing family rejection, particularly if a family member acts as a caregiver or guardian? Are LGBT community spaces and resources accessible to people with disabilities?
  • Nationally, Black students and students with disabilities face significantly higher rates of school suspensions and expulsions as well as higher rates of restraints and seclusion than their peers. Black boys with disabilities face the highest rates in both categories. Yet addressing the “school to prison pipeline” has often been seen solely as a racial justice issue while restraints and seclusion are seen as exclusively a disability rights issues.

To address these and similar issues, we must step out of our individual silos, work across communities, and come to realize that our movements are interconnected.

It is this spirit of solidarity that led to so many of our most celebrated civil rights victories, including such landmark legislation as the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. It is this spirit of unity that led Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph, and Arnold Aronson to establish The Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights (then The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights) in 1950. And it is this spirit of commonality that brought aging and disability programs together to create the Administration for Community Living.

“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle” the poet and activist Audre Lorde once observed, “because we do not live single-issue lives.”

We can become stronger advocates for our communities when we recognize the many intersecting experiences and issues that impact a single person’s life, and we can accomplish more in coalition than any one of us could accomplish on our own.

Aaron Bishop is the Commissioner of the Administration on Disabilities within HHS’ Administration for Community Living

Wade Henderson is President and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and The Leadership Conference Education Fund.