This is the final in a series of posts written by Abby Howard (Mu) designed to educate our members about Autism and Autism Acceptance.
Have we ever asked Autistic Omega Phi Alpha members how they want to be supported in April?
We would not be a part of Omega Phi Alpha if we had poor intentions. Our cardinal principles of friendship, leadership, and service guide our hands as we put countless hours into service each year. But there has to be a moment where we stop and reflect. Are we making the impact that we want to make? Are we sending the messages we intend to send? How can we be better?
It’s important to note that no sorority, including our own, has ever made a public statement committing themselves to being a welcoming place for Autistic people. In fact, the Panhellenic Council has openly supported Alpha Xi Delta’s continued support and philanthropic efforts towards Autism Speaks despite the open boycott of Alpha Xi Delta from the Autistic community and protests that have happened at their “Light it up Blue” events every April. Sisters of Alpha Xi Delta who have spoken out have faced fines and disassociation. There has not yet been any sign of change.
This puts Omega Phi Alpha and our members in a position to make a huge impact and set an example. If we can make a commitment to educating ourselves and taking the next steps towards Autism Acceptance, and hopefully one day Autism Appreciation, we could make Greek Life a more accessible space for Autistic members.
This won’t happen overnight, but there are a few things we can do now to help make this change.
- Use the preferred imagery.
A rainbow or gold infinity loop with a red background that says Autism Acceptance is the most ideal way to show you’ve understood the history and want to show support.
- Donate to organizations run by Autistic people for Autistic people.
The two organizations that I recommend are the Autism Self Advocacy Network and Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network. These organizations work to directly impact issues like housing crises, employment, and educational support for Autistic people.
- Remember that Autistic is not a dirty word.
When a survey was done in 2019, 98% of Autistic people responded that they prefer to be called Autistic rather than using person-first language. If someone tells you they identify as Autistic, never correct them and tell them they’re wrong. It might be uncomfortable at first, but this is one of the first signs of respect that you can offer. This also works in reverse, if a person prefers to use person-first language, while it may not be the preference of the majority, it is important to always respect them. It may be helpful to think of how people identify as similar to sharing pronouns, go with the information shared with you.
- Consult Autistic sisters when you’re thinking of a new project about Autism.
There are more of us than you know in Omega Phi Alpha. If you can’t find an Autistic sister, my email is always open. We will tell you if there are any improvements you can make towards being more accessible and inclusive. This is a good practice for when you’re working with any marginalized group.
- Don’t speak over Autistic people.
Often, people feel that having experience with knowing or working with Autistic people gives them the ability to act as experts on the issue. The ultimate experts on what makes Autistic people feel validated and supported will always be Autistic people themselves. This isn’t to say that allies aren’t needed, but you should never use your space as an ally to silence Autistic voices.
- Autism does not have a look.
One of the most common responses when people discover someone’s diagnosis is saying, “You don’t look Autistic.” Keep in mind, there are very few positive representations of Autistic people in the media. This phrase is often very invalidating and hurtful. If someone discloses their diagnosis to you, you can instead ask how they would like to be supported.
- Respect boundaries.
Autistic people often have different boundaries. Many of us do not enjoy being touched and eye contact is often an uncomfortable experience. If an Autistic person shares boundaries with you that you might not understand or relate to, it is important to honor those just like you’d honor anyone else’s.
- Give warning for things that could be distressing.
This is especially true if you will utilize strobe lights. Many Autistic people have epilepsy as well, so this can be especially life-saving. Always warn if you know that there might be sudden loud noises, such as if you are popping balloons at the end of an event. The more we communicate, the more we can accommodate the needs of Autistic people.
- Make room for various modes of communication.
This is especially important for things like recruitment and standards board meetings. Many Autistic people are more comfortable writing their communication, especially if the topic is distressing. Some Autistic people may use assistive communication devices that will speak for them. Others may sign. Understanding communication preferences is a helpful tool to ensure you are being inclusive.
- Offer flexibility.
This is universal to every part of the sisterhood. There may be needs that can’t be addressed in training because everyday situations change. The best practice when it comes to being inclusive is to keep an open discussion about each person’s needs and try to collaborate on solutions to remove barriers. We will always be learning and adapting our organization to be more inclusive, but this can only happen when we make a commitment to understanding each other and working together to find solutions.
These ten steps will help a lot more than you know. I personally commit to continue writing and consulting with the Board of Directors on new ways to provide education to our members.
No question is a silly question. If you ever need to ask someone, I will always be here to guide you. If you are an Autistic sister interested in working together on initiatives towards acceptance and inclusivity, or if you need support and want to ask a fellow Autistic sister for that, please contact me.
We have a wonderful opportunity to fill in the gaps that Greek Life often misses. I hope that all of you are as excited about this as I am. With great pleasure, I would like to wish you all a Happy Autism Acceptance Month!
About Abby Howard
Abby Howard has been a member of Omega Phi Alpha since Fall 2014. While her home chapter is Mu Chapter at Middle Tennessee State University, she now serves as a faculty advisor to Phi Chapter at Arizona State University. Abby holds a Bachelor’s degree in Communication and a Master of Education degree in Higher Education Administration focusing on Universal Design in Higher Education. Abby is currently completing a Master’s degree in School Counseling with a specialization in Neurodiversity Affirmative Therapy and serves as a Specialist in Student Accessibility and Inclusive Learning Services at Arizona State University. As a nationally award-winning public speaker, Abby uses her skills to coach competitive high school speech and debate.