How PR Students and Pros Can Avoid Missing the DEI in DEI Months


By Jenna Richardson

It’s officially April, which is also Autism Acceptance Month. Each April, you’ll see many organizations participating in Autism Speaks’ popular Light it Up Blue campaign, promoting the puzzle piece symbol, donating to autism charities and sponsoring events like autism walks.

Then, on May 1, everything will disappear. It’s the same with every month that focuses on diversity, equity and inclusion, and there’s even a running joke on the internet about how quickly businesses jump in and out of DEI initiatives every month.

This observation is not me saying businesses shouldn’t participate. As an aspiring public relations professional, I think DEI months are an important way to celebrate diversity and culture, and, when done right, they can promote change and acceptance all year long. However, there seems to be a sense of apathy in most businesses’ DEI month campaigns that teeters on the edge of performative diversity. To me, April is the perfect example of this issue.

Autism Acceptance Month was not always about acceptance. Until 2021, the official name for the month was Autism Awareness Month. For years, the autistic community encouraged a name change, as “awareness” had a connotation of autism being a problem in need of a solution. Then in 2020, The Autism Society began to push for the name change and encouraged other nonprofits and businesses to follow suit. By April of 2021, it was successful.

This change was a win for the autistic community, and it was heralded in by businesses’ and nonprofits’ DEI initiatives. However, the autistic community is vocal about many issues that remain unchanged.

Autism Speaks’ Light It Up Blue campaign is very unpopular due to both the color choice and Autism Speaks’ controversies, and many autistic people promote the Light It Up Red campaign instead. The puzzle piece, the symbol of many autism charities, has also been criticized for its problematic messaging. Yet many businesses, government departments and nonprofits continue to participate in these and other initiatives without a second thought.

It’s important to note that not every person in the autistic community is against these campaigns. The autistic community has different opinions, and it’s not my place to say what is right or wrong. My real issue is these voices within the autistic community are not being heard by the same organizations who claim (at least during April) to support them.

It’s not just me who has an issue with performative diversity. A study by Edelman found that 70% of my generation, Generation Z, is involved in a social or political cause. We are more likely to boycott an organization than any other generation, according to a LendingTree survey. Authenticity and sincerity have always been necessary aspects of consumer relations and are becoming more important than ever because of Gen-Z.

So, as we go through the month of April and into the rest of the year, I propose this to all public relations practitioners: During DEI months, your main job is to listen. Don’t assume you know everything. Don’t assume a nonprofit knows everything. For example, reach out to leaders in the autistic community. Learn from resources by autistic people, not just about them. Understand that these months aren’t just a public relations strategy to appeal to your publics; it’s an opportunity to make a real difference by using your platform to elevate others.

Finally, to organizations: don’t participate in a DEI month if you’re not going to practice what you preach all year long.

Jenna Richardson is a public relations junior at The University of Alabama and a writer/editor for Platform Magazine. She has been previously published with The Crimson White, and is currently involved with Capstone Agency, Yonder Contemporary Dance Company’s promotions team, Academic Honor Council and the Wesley Foundation at UA.

2 thoughts on “How PR Students and Pros Can Avoid Missing the DEI in DEI Months

  1. While Hollywood efforts and TV shows like ‘The Good Doctor’ do help the autism-spectrum-disorder cause, maybe schoolteachers could/should receive mandatory training on children with ASD, especially as the rate of diagnoses greatly increases.

    There could also be an inclusion in standard high school curriculum of child-development science that would also teach students about the often-debilitating condition (without being overly complicated).

    If nothing else, the curriculum would offer students an idea/clue as to whether they themselves are emotionally/mentally compatible with the immense responsibility and strains of regular, non-ASD-child parenthood.

    It would explain to students how, among other aspects of the condition, people with ASD (including those with higher functioning autism) are often deemed willfully ‘difficult’ and socially incongruent, when in fact such behavior is really not a choice. And how “camouflaging” or “masking,” terms used to describe ASD people pretending to naturally fit into a socially ‘normal’ environment, causes their already high anxiety and depression levels to further increase.

    Of course, this exacerbation is reflected in the disproportionately high rate of suicide among ASD people. … There could also be childrearing/parenting instruction in regards to children born with ASD.

    [As for my own autism-spectrum disordered brain, I’m sometimes told, “But you’re so smart!” To this I immediately agitatedly reply: “But for every ‘gift’ I have, there are a corresponding three or four deficits.” It’s crippling, and on multiple levels!]

    Low-functioning autism is already readily recognized and treated, but higher-functioning ASD cases are basically left to fend for themselves. … As a moral rule, a physically and mentally sound future should be EVERY child’s fundamental right, especially considering the very troubled world into which they never asked to enter.

    1. I 100% agree! Change needs to happen, and education is such an important way to improve acceptance and understanding of a community that has been pushed aside and misunderstood for far too long. I can only hope that in my career as a public relations professional, I can use the power and resources of the companies I work with to advocate for better education surrounding autism. Thank you so much for your insight, I am constantly trying to learn how to be a better ally and advocate for the autistic community!

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