U is for Understand….
To understand is more than a cognitive issue. It’s also an active issue. It’s one thing to comprehend Pythagoras’ theorem or Trigonometry, but that comprehension is irrelevant to anything unless it is applied in some use. It’s all very well to know that lengths of a triangle can be deduced from the formula a²+b²=c², but what use is this if never used to actually discover the unknown length of a triangle side?
True understanding is not just the knowledge or comprehension of a thing, it is more, it is an act of applying that knowledge or comprehension.
In my school life, I chose to complete the lowest level of Mathematics I was able to, against all good advice from teachers and family. It was not that I was unable to complete the more difficult levels, I could have, quite successfully, I just believed it to be irrelevant. In effect, I believed it was like knowledge without application, and therefore without true understanding.
In the first year of post-high school, I discovered the stupidity of my decision. I gained entry into a course to become a land surveyor and an employment position as a surveyor’s assistant. I position in, which I would need to apply mathematical knowledge every day. In addition, the course, I began required the higher level of mathematics and so I was forced to complete a bridging subject to bring my mathematics up to the required level.
I share this to attempt to allude to how without a true understanding of a thing, it is difficult to make an accurate judgement of things. I didn’t have a true understanding of Surveying, and so I made a cognitive judgment based on my own desires and was found wanting.
So it is with “Autism Awareness” campaigns. Well-meaning parents, families, friends, charities and service providers jump in with both feet to “raise awareness” about autism. Puzzle pieces are adorned, coloured light bulbs are purchased, blog posts are written on all things autism, the latest cause is announced, the next miracle cure or groundbreaking treatment is spruiked.
But zero of this comes from a place of understanding. It comes from a place of cognition. It is with a sense of knowledge about autism rather than an understanding of what it is to be autistic. Certainly it is often levied with good intention, with a genuine heart to help and assist.
But, for the most part, it doesn’t help it harms.
It harms autistics. It really does. It harms because it perpetuates the myth that a thing needs to be thoroughly known, that a saturation point of knowledge must exist before acceptance of that thing can occur.
A true understanding of autism can’t exist unless acceptance is part and parcel of that understanding.
The raising awareness phenomenon doesn’t help us it harms us. It is, in reality, a passive thing. It doesn’t actually do anything to support us, make our lives better, help us into employment, provide us access to needed services etc.
What the raising awareness does do is provide feel goodness to those that participate in it. It feels good to go on a walk to raise money for awareness. But in the end so what! What does that do for that autistic girl in the class who is constantly overloaded by the sensory hell she deals with every day in class?
Understanding is acceptance, and it’s an action based thing.
The total lack of understanding of the awareness phenomenon is displayed on so many levels, not least of which is the insistence of the use of person first language, in direct contradiction to the expressed wishes of many autistic people.
At a whole other level is the all too regular occurrences of autistic humans dying in encounters with law enforcement. Yet another case just over this last weekend.
As an autistic person, I seek acceptance and understanding. You don’t have to know everything about autism in order to understand and accept me. You gain understanding in the act of acceptance. You gain understanding as you get to know me, you gain understanding as you experience me for me, not for whom I can pretend to be.
Understand this, that autism is not actually a thing, it can’t truly be studied, it can’t be truly cognitively known. It is not really a thing, it is a way of being, it is a neurological reality. It is not a tangible thing that can be touched, measured and categorised, it can, however, be understood through the acceptance of those who have the lived experience of being autistic, of being neurodivergent, of living every moment in that reality.
U is for understanding. Please pursue it.