As we wind down this Autism Acceptance month of April, do we feel that we have been successful? Did we run that race, attend that conference, wear that shirt? Is that what autism acceptance is all about? Is it a practice we engage in only once a year, or is it a time to create opportunities for ourselves and others to reflect and learn throughout the year? I find myself asking what autism acceptance means to me, and how will I take the opportunity to learn and grow this next year.
As I understand it, the goal of focusing on autism acceptance is to validate individuals that identify on the autism spectrum by publicly and socially engaging with how we think, feel and experience autism in a thoughtful way. So how can we do that? The psychological definition of acceptance means “taking a stance of non-judgmental awareness and actively embracing the experience of thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations as they occur” (Hayes et al., 2004).
How do we actively embrace the experience of thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations of autism as they occur in a non-judgmental way? First, I think we can take the opportunity to listen. We can only validate who a person is if we listen to who they feel they are. Too often we define individuals by their diagnosis and make a plan of intervention based on other people’s words. If we take the time to ask, “how do you experience the world?”, maybe we will find answers we never imagined were possible.
Second, we can take the opportunity to hold a space for all emotions. Often, we want people to focus on what is working and to avoid emotions that society may frown upon, such as allowing people to hold a space for their grief or to reflect and process opportunities lost. We tell them to stay present and focus on their goals, causing more stress on performance outcomes. What happens to humans when they suppress grief?
According to Rolden, 2022 in the article “10 Things to Know about Stuffing Your Grief”: “You suppress your grief and mask it with what you perceive to be more “normal” behavior. Masked grief causes reactions that may impair everyday functioning. Symptoms are often masked as physical symptoms or abnormal behaviors. You may have a hard time relating your grief to your symptoms or behaviors”.
Creating a safe, nonjudgmental space for allowing others to voice their grief, sadness, and anger sounds like an opportunity to remove roadblocks for moving forward.
How do we accept bodily sensations? This could simply be acknowledging that not everyone experiences sensory information in the same way. For instance, I cannot tolerate the feeling of raw cotton fibers. It feels like thousands of tiny needles stabbing my fingers. Fortunately, I am easily able to avoid raw cotton. Understanding that other individuals may experience something as painful, even though we don’t, is a form of acceptance.
So how can we put acceptance into actions? We can speak up, create space, and acknowledge others by just listening.
Steven C. Hayes, Acceptance and commitment therapy, relational frame theory, and the third wave of behavioral and cognitive therapies, Behavior Therapy, Volume 35, Issue 4, 2004, Pages 639-665, ISSN 0005-7894, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0005-7894(04)80013-3.
Masked Grief: 10 Things to Know About Stuffing Your Grief. Urns | Online. https://www.usurnsonline.com/grief-loss/masked-grief/