Learning acceptance during Autism Awareness Month

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In past years, April was referred to as Autism Awareness Month. In 2021, the Autism Society of America is encouraging a shift towards calling it Autism Acceptance Month instead. After all, awareness isn’t really the issue.

“While we will always work to spread awareness, words matter as we strive for autistic individuals to live fully in all areas of life,” said Christopher Banks, president and CEO of the Autism Society of America. “As many individuals and families affected by autism know, acceptance is often one of the biggest barriers to finding and developing a strong support system.”

Anthony Ianni — the first Division I college basketball player known with autism and current autism advocate — agrees with this sentiment. He found out he was on the spectrum at age 4. 

“We’re in a better spot now than we were 15 years ago. When I was in high school, none of my classmates really knew what autism was,” said Ianni. “There was no talk about Autism Awareness Month. Fast-forward to now, you see a lot more schools getting involved with autism awareness.” He said that there’s still a lot of work to be done to increase both awareness and acceptance. 

To illustrate his point, he used a sports metaphor. As a team, you never stop practicing. You try to get better and better every day. He views autism activism in a similar way. The work will never truly be done. 

Ianni does work for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights and also runs an all-stars basketball camp for kids on the spectrum. 

“Whether it’s donating or volunteering or just getting involved with some nonprofit organizations, it really goes a long way,” said Ianni. “It helps those kids get the accommodations they need. It also lets those kids know that society is aware of what autism is and accepting of those individuals as well.”

Around 2012, Ianni founded The Relentless Tour — an anti-bullying initiative that took him across the country. He shared stories about being bullied for being on the spectrum. Eventually, that got him the attention of the MDCR.

“It’s been a fun ride, being able to travel all over the country and getting to meet all these great individuals,” said Ianni. “For me to be able to tell people that I represent the autism community, I feel a lot of pride in that.”

When Ianni joined the MSU basketball team, he wanted to keep his autism a secret. But Draymond Green got upset when Ianni didn’t understand one of his jokes. A training coach explained that Ianni didn’t understand the joke because he is on the spectrum. 

After that, the floodgates opened. The whole team learned about it, and Ianni felt much more comfortable being himself. 

“I wasn’t angry. Draymond was asking me why I didn’t tell him. I just told him that I didn’t know how he’d react,” said Ianni. “From that day forward, it was awesome. I had no issue asking my teammates whether or not someone was being sarcastic.”

That little anecdote about Ianni shows the value of acceptance and awareness. Revealing his autism gave Ianni the freedom to be himself and navigate the world. 

“I thought they were going to treat me different after I told them,” said Ianni. “The thing I loved most about it is that it gave my teammates an opportunity to learn about autism. It was something they didn’t know about before. And now they’re all experts.”

Autism activist Xavier DeGroat, head of the Xavier DeGroat Foundation, said acceptance involves being inclusive. 

“You should be friendly and open-minded, instead of just sticking to your own perspective or your own way of seeing things,” DeGroat said. “You have to have neurodiversity in order to have justice for people with autism.”

DeGroat’s foundation has had a busy month. Earlier this week, he held a ceremony at the Capitol with the Lansing Police Department celebrating the passage of a law that allows drivers with autism to include their condition as part of their driving record. The law, which goes into effect in July, requires officers to make special accommodations for autistic drivers. DeGroat said this will help prevent routine traffic stops from going awry. 

“When a person with autism is pulled over, they can automatically go into a severe stimulation that increases their sensory overload and anxiety,” DeGroat said. “It might lead into a tantrum, and before this law a police might not understand that the flashing siren lights and other issues can cause sensory problems.”

DeGroat also appeared on former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s television show this month, and his foundation still has several other plans for the rest of April, including several local community seminars, a fundraiser at Zap Zone and the release of a documentary, which details DeGroat’s life with autism — including his time spent as the first autistic White House intern.

“I hope that it motivates people to look at their struggles and focus on their abilities, rather than their disabilities, to become sucessful in life. Having autism can be difficult economically and socially, and there’s a lot of politics involved with it. I hope the documentary inspires other families to move along with their own energy,” DeGroat said.

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