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Cool It With the ‘Autism Awareness’ T-Shirts

They may be well-intentioned, but all too often they’re not made for people who are actually autistic.

Two rows of “austim awareness” T-shirts on a white background. Photo: SunFrog

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If you so much as mention autism on social media, your feeds will suddenly be inundated with suggested content and ads somehow related to the neurodevelopmental disorder. Twitter will recommend accounts run by allistic (non-autistic) experts and the parents of autistic children. Pinterest will shower you with “inspirational” posters extolling the bravery, strength, and all-around mama-bear-ness of these Autism Warrior Parents. Facebook ads will become convinced that you’re in the market for a miracle cure… and approximately 6,000 autism-themed T-shirts to go along with it.

I’m an autistic writer and self-advocate, and I basically never shut up about autism and the issues facing my community. So Facebook meets my constant posts about things like autism acceptance, representation, and the need for meaningful support with a steady stream of autism-related products and services. Sometimes this means that I see ads for dubious stem cell “cures” and various diets that strikes me as far more tragic than autism. Mostly, though, I get a parade of the ugliest and most noxious apparel I’ve seen since the No Fear brand petered out in the late ’90s.

Almost every day I’m greeted with a new sartorial horror. Garish leggings covered in primary-colored puzzle pieces – a symbol that was first used to represent our “puzzling” condition in the ‘60s and is still widely embraced by non-autistic parents, even though many autistic people are kind of over the idea that we’re mysteries that need to be solved. A T-shirt with the slogan “My CHILD is not rude hyper or weird. It’s called AUTISM. WHAT’S YOUR EXCUSE?” spelled out in two different typefaces and three different font sizes, adorned with even more puzzle pieces. A rainbow of neon letters and yet another slew of puzzle pieces that reads “Someone ausome has my heart” on a shirt that’s been seemingly (and badly) Photoshopped onto The Rock’s expansive chest, for some inexplicable reason.

Images courtesy of the author’s Facebook ads

Without exception, I’ve hated every single piece of autism awareness fashion that I’ve come across, whether it’s in the aforementioned Facebook ads, on official charity shirts, or at T-shirt shops run by the parents of autistic kids. Some of my concerns are political in nature. The T-shirts that appear on doctored images of celebrities in my feed leave a bad taste in my mouth, reminding me of the shady companies behind the fake Standing Rock merchandise that BuzzFeed exposed last year. I’m also not a big fan of anything about autistic people that’s made without our input — or with any idea that we might be consumers of the product — be it scientific research, television shows, or T-shirts.

I have purely aesthetic objections, too, though. Most of the designs are ugly and unappealing to me. Many of them are downright baffling. Autistic people often have issues with sensory sensitivity, so why are the logos and slogans that claim to care and fight for us bright and busy enough to induce sensory overload? Most of all, though, I think I’m just confused by the whole autism awareness fashion phenomenon. Who does apparel like this help? Who wants to wear it? What purpose does it serve? They’re certainly not doing anything for me as an actually autistic person, or most of the other people on the spectrum that I’ve talked to.

In general, I’m usually a pretty big fan of logo T-shirts. I’ve even joked that that the ridiculously large collection of them that I’ve amassed over my 35 years on earth should technically count as autism awareness clothing, given the fact that you can easily chart the ebb and flow of my so-called special interests through them. There’s a childhood trove of tiny Titanic shirts that my parents sourced for me when Dr. Robert Ballard’s discovery of the famous wreck blew my 5-year-old mind, and the world’s smallest Max Headroom sweatshirt from when I went through that slightly ill-advised phase at a far-too-young and impressionable age. There’s a stash of concert tees honoring every band that I saw and loved when indie rock became my world in the mid-’90s. I’m currently working on a collection of T-shirts with obscure references to obscure television shows.

I’ve worn these shirts because I love the things they represent, but I’m also starting to realize that I’ve been using them as a coping mechanism of sorts. I’m terrible at small talk and engaging with people I don’t know well, and the right shirt seen by the right person can skip those unpleasant steps and put me on footing that’s far more comfortable. If someone comments on a shirt I’m wearing, I know that I’ve found at least a somewhat like-minded person and that we have a common frame of reference for whatever conversation might flow from that. Chatter about stuff like the weather continues to evade me, but I can handle what comes after “Hey, nice Titanic/Change of Heart/Captain Scarlet shirt!”

Outside of a “Fuck You, Andrew Wakefield” V-neck (Wakefield being the former doctor whose thoroughly discredited study linking vaccines to autism continues to be a scourge on public health and the autism community) that I picked up from autistic activist Eb’s Model Deviance Designs shop earlier this year, though, I’ve never felt much of an impulse to add autism messages to my closet full of sartorial conversation starters. Curious to see what the appeal of a shirt like this might be to someone on the spectrum, I reached out to the only autistic person I know who wears an autism T-shirt: my father, Dan Kurchak.

It turns out that he’s been trying to develop a similar wardrobe-based life hack since he purchased a purple running shirt with the logo of the Asperger’s Ontario charity on it a few years ago. “I know a lot of people don’t know much about Asperger’s or autism, so I tried the shirt to see if it was enough to open a conversation,” he told me via text message (because autistic people generally hate telephone conversations). “When I first wore it, the person I was with told me a lot of people looked at it but did not approach me. So from time to time, I’ve tried it again. Looks but no approaches. I’m happy to have the shirt and still hopeful it might generate a conversation some time.”

Dad said that he recently wore it to a local community event and elicited some smiles and waves from the people at the Special Olympics booth. “I suppose it’s a start,” he mused. A few minutes later, I got a follow-up text: “I’m proud of who I am and happy to wave the flag.”

All of this sounded good to me in theory. I’m proud of who I am, too. I’m always looking for an excuse to talk about autism. I wasn’t really exaggerating when I said that I never shut up about it. So why have I been so resistant to finding a piece of apparel or an accessory of my own?

Glitter Enamel Pin by Beth Wilson on Etsy, $7

Browsing Etsy a few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a cute pin that spelled out “autistic” in a simple font with a hint of glitter, and I started to wonder if my issue with autism awareness fashion might not have been the concept itself. I just needed to find the right piece and the right designer.

After ordering one of the pins I contacted the seller, an autistic artist named Beth Wilson, to ask what had inspired her to make them. “I was just having a browse online to see if there was any autism merch that I liked, and I couldn’t really find much,” she told me via e-mail (again, because talking on phones really is the worst). “I decided to make something for autistic people as an autistic person, to celebrate who we are.”

Like me, Wilson was dismayed by many of the products that she’d seen on the market. “I really hate it,” she said. “I did some research a few weeks ago and was overwhelmed by the amount of stuff that was created by allistic people, mostly for parents of autistic children. Aesthetically I dislike the jumbled words and the colors, but I also dislike the messages. It’s all centered around the parents and not the autistic person. A lot include the puzzle piece, which is pretty unpopular among actually autistic people. Lots of the messages are about how it’s tough being an ‘autism parent,’ and that makes me feel really uncomfortable. I don’t want to see messages that portray autistic children as a burden/difficult, etc.”

Wilson set out to make her work the antithesis of those offerings in terms of both aesthetics and message. “I wanted to keep it simple, easily readable, and not overwhelming. I do really dislike the stuff you’re talking about, which seems to use a lot of typefaces and colors all squashed together so it’s hard to process. I used glitter because I really enjoy looking at sparkles in the light. Glitter is used in sensory things like sparkle jars (jars of water with color and glitter in it), and I think a lot of autistic people enjoy sparkly things.”

When I asked her what she thought the differences between merch made that’s made by us as opposed to about us, Wilson mentioned some of the more obvious differences. “Allistic people are making stuff for themselves and it really shows. Autistic stuff celebrates autism and is sensorially pleasing.”

But she also pointed out that the differences run much deeper than the designs themselves. While the shirts I’ve seen advertised on Facebook often make money for allistic people, and charity T-shirts raise funds for organizations that are often run by allistic people, purchasing merch from autistic artists directly contributes to the wellbeing of autistic people.

“A lot of autistic people struggle to work in conventional jobs, myself included,” she stated. (This is also true for me. Writing is my dream job, but it’s also my last resort.) “So when you purchase something from an autistic person, you are supporting them and helping them earn a living.”

This is one of the many reasons that I’m proud to take my brand-new, thoughtfully designed, and aesthetically pleasing “autistic” pin and place it on my jean jacket next to the buttons featuring photos of the 1985 goth Duran Duran side project Arcadia that I recently felt the need to procure. And if anyone asks me about it, I’ll be happy to discuss the matter at great, excited length.