By: Waverly Ann Harris

“In short, acceptance means that people know who you are, and they include you anyway.”

My mom says that when I was little, I would ask her about her “friends who don’t drive” when I talked about the adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities at her work. Growing up I would ride the bus home from school to my mom’s work. In those days it was customary that organizations would secure local contracts and have assembly-type work for these adults to do and get paid. I remember spending my summers packing sponges alongside them and talking about many different things. Apparently, the only difference that stuck out to me was that they were adults that didn’t drive.

I am often asked what led me to work in this field: How I decided to work with individuals with disabilities. For years it was hard for me to articulate an answer because I never made a conscious decision to work with people with disabilities. 

Rather, I chose to work in social justice. But what started out as a fun job out of college grew into an understanding of how slowly our communities are evolving to provide opportunities for individuals with disabilities. I realized how naïve I had been about how hard individuals and their families had to fight for basic human rights and kindness.

Friends Life Community supports more than 65 adults who don’t drive — we call them Friends — and their family members. I still get uncomfortable when families tell us that they are so appreciative that their loved ones have a safe place to be, a place where they know they are accepted for who they are, and a place where they are respected and valued. It makes me uncomfortable because that is not something that should warrant a thank you. It should be the standard, not the exception.

“What does it mean to be accepted? That’s easy. It means that people smile a genuine, welcoming smile when they see you. It really is that simple,” says Diane, a mother of an adult son who attends FLC. She further explains, “We learned about acceptance the hard way: by being excluded. We learned from too many classroom birthdays when he was the only kid left off the invitation list. Too many church congregations who asked us to leave because they “just didn’t have the staff to deal with him. Too many times he was the kid all by himself on the playground. Too many sideways glances, eyerolls, and awkward silences when he entered the room.”


April is Autism Acceptance Month. This is a two-part call to action. It is helpful that many people have heard the term Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder, but few people understand Autism, and many people still do not feel accepted.

We are fortunate to have teachers such as Temple Grandin, who writes and offers insight into how individuals with Autism think differently from others. She is able to clearly articulate how her Autistic brain works and has done an exceptional job of being a voice for others who may not know how to explain what they are thinking or feeling. She is just one example of how the differences in how an Autistic brain works is extremely beneficial and necessary for the collaboration of a team and a community as a whole. She revolutionized the agricultural industry and increased the quality of life and death for animals, and as she points out, there are many engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs who have changed history and advanced society who have had Autism. They have been able to implement solutions in an advanced way because they saw the world differently.

Mary Ann works at Friends Life Community and has a sister with Autism. Siblings have such a wonderful perspective. She explains, “Autism Acceptance means knowing and understanding there are people that see and experience the world in a unique way and it is simply adequate. My mind goes to children in schools that have to endure standardized testing because that is the accepted measure of success. Then, as adults, they have to endure standardized workplaces that emphasize profits because that is the accepted measure of success. What if those standards do not measure success for a person?”

As Mary Ann points out, our society is often built around measurement that fits only a specific type of person. The problem is that this system leaves some people out of important opportunities, and the society as a whole loses because we miss out on what these individuals have to offer. She continues, “Women and men are created differently and experience the world in a unique way and each brings a perspective or value that the other cannot. The same is true for women and men with Autism. They experience the world in a unique way and bring a perspective or value that the other cannot, so it seems unwise to deem other ways incorrect, problematic, or challenging.

“I would give anything to be in my sister’s brain for a moment to better understand the way she experiences the world and better understand all the ways in which I am inadequate.”


    Two women standing next to each other holding up a small painting

    It’s not Autism that is complicated. People are complicated. We all have quirks, challenges, temperaments, demands, traumas, and many other traits that make us human. And we all have strengths, perspectives, skills, and gifts to share that are valuable and make the world around us better. Let’s not make acceptance complicated.

    Jimmy, one of the Friends at FLC, said it simply: “People treat us differently. Don’t do that! We are not broken people. We are just different and different is not broken.”

    To reiterate Jimmy’s comment, people with Autism are not broken and therefore they do not need to be fixed. What is broken are our systems that do not include everyone and do not create equitable ways for everyone to participate. This is a lose-lose environment.

    I recognize that I can’t fully understand how Jimmy sees the world, how he thinks or why he makes the decisions that he makes. And Jimmy can’t always relate to the way I think. But we both know what it feels like to be ignored, treated unkindly, and disrespected. Jimmy said, “Acceptance feels good. I feel important, like I mean something — not just a throw-away.” I don’t have to think the way Jimmy thinks to know how that feels and to know that I don’t want either of us to feel that way.

    I think we can all relate to Diane’s words and the desire to have a place to belong, “To paraphrase the old Cheers song, it means everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came to join them. It means you have a place where you belong, despite your odd behaviors and less-than-polished social skills. It means that others want you to come back again when you leave. It means that someone else’s life is diminished if you’re not in it.

    “In short, acceptance means that people know who you are, and they include you anyway.”