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From Autism Awareness to Autism Acceptance

Inclusivity Starts in the Classroom

By Cheryl Widman, Special Education Instructor and Researcher

Fifty years ago, autism was reported at two to four cases per 10,000.5 8 9 Today, according to the CDC,2 one in 54 children is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. That represents an increase of more than 6,000% in autism prevalence over just a few decades; in other words, a diagnosis of autism has quickly gone from rare to common. Most of us know someone who is autistic or related to someone who is autistic. But while we may be aware of autism, that doesn’t mean we accept autism.

Autism has quickly gone from rare to common.

About one in three autistic kids is bullied, and bullying doesn’t stop once the autistic person reaches adulthood. It continues in the workplace, where one in six autistic adults is bullied.1 While more than half of all colleges and universities have autistic students on campus, graduation with a degree does not necessarily guarantee a job.9 As many as 85% of autistic college graduates are unemployed.6 The lack of acceptance is real and pervasive at all levels and throughout institutions, public and private.

Creating Inclusivity in the Classroom

The solution begins with each of us:

  • As educators, we can teach acceptance. We can send the message to our students that every child in the classroom is valued and equal.
  • As parents and caregivers, we can teach our children that there are many different types of diversity, including neurodiversity. We can emphasize that diversity is a good thing for many important reasons.
  • As employers, we can hire autistic employees who are hard-working problem solvers bringing creativity and a unique skillset to the workplace if only we would give them a chance.

We can do this. We can spread autism acceptance, through Autism Awareness Month and extending to every day of the year. We need more stories about autistic kids doing great things, like the autistic boy who scored a three-point basket for his team3 or eight-year-old Adhara Pérez Sánchez, diagnosed with autism at age three, now studying systems engineering and mathematics at a university in Mexico.4 We need these stories for the neurotypical children in our classrooms and for their autistic aclassmates as well. Autistic kids need role models, too.

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Lao Tzu

Normalizing Autism

Autistic children are like everyone else. They want friends, even if they may not show it. They want to be accepted, even when they don’t realize their behavior might push others away. As adults, we need to be facilitators, the ones who explain how to make a friend or be a friend. We are the ones given the task of normalizing autism as an acceptable human condition.

Scientist Temple Grandin declared: “I am different, not less.” We need to spread that message. Autistics may be different, but they are not less. We must learn to accept who they are, without the expectation that they must be like us or become more like us to be accepted.

Athlete Julie Foudy asserted: “I believe it's our responsibility to show our communities the value of all people, to celebrate different, and to take a stand for acceptance and inclusion.” If we can accept autism and autistic children as they are, we can tear down the barriers that prevent autistic students, and the adults they grow into, from achieving their full potential. That is our challenge. That is our mission.


1. Autism Society. (2020). Bullying Prevention.
2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, March 26). Autism and developmental disabilities monitoring (ADDM) network.
3. Fox10. (2021, January 31). Autistic boy sinks 3-pointer [Video]. Fox10Phoenix.
4. Gregorio-Nieto, B. (2020, March 7). To change the world: Girl, 8, has an IQ of 162, hopes to become astronaut. 7 San Diego.
5. Lotter, V. (1966). Epidemiology of autistic conditions in young children. Social Psychiatry, 1(3), 124–135.
6. Pesce, N.C. (2019, April 2). Most college grads with autism can’t find jobs. This group is fixing that. Marketwatch.
7. Rutter, M. (2005). Aetiology of autism: Findings and questions. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 49(4), 231–238.
8. Treffert, D. A. (1970) Epidemiology of infantile autism. Archives of General Psychiatry, 22(5), 431–438.
9. Widman, C. J. & Lopez-Reyna, N. A. (2020). Supports for postsecondary students with autism spectrum disorder: A systematic review. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, (50)9, 3166-3178.

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