Today is World Autism Awareness Day, and April is Autism Awareness Month. What should we be making the public aware of?
I want people to be aware that people with autism are people, deserving of respect and tolerance. That many of them are very smart. That just because a person may not speak does not mean he does not hear, and feel, and understand. That autism is not the same as retardation.
I want people to be aware that autism is as much a part of who a person is as his ethnicity or skin color or sexuality. And like all of those attributes, autism is a difference, but not better or worse than any other way of being.
I want people to be aware of the sensory integration problems that often plague individuals on the spectrum. I want them to imagine how they would react if every sound were amplified ten times, or if they could not sense where their own body was in space, or if even their softest clothes constantly grated on their skin.
I want people to be aware of the digestive problems often experienced by individuals with autism. That chronic constipation, the inability to digest wheat or dairy proteins, and frequent abdominal pain can be par for the course.
I want people to be aware that their snap judgments of what they perceive as a mother's poor parenting skills may not accurately reflect the situation they are observing. I want people to understand that when a child with autism has a meltdown in public, it's not because she's a spoiled brat, but because her brain is not wired to handle life in a neurotypical world.
I want people to respect that children with autism may be developmentally delayed by a couple of years in some ways but operate at an age-appropriate - or advanced - level in other ways. That in spite of whatever limitations they have, many individuals with autism are quite gifted in other areas.
I want people to be aware that the autism spectrum is a diverse and confusing range of symptoms, behaviors, challenges, and strengths. Some individuals may flap their hands, or pass objects in front of their eyes, or stare at ceiling fans; and some may not do any of these things. Others may have trouble making eye contact or understanding social cues; and some may look you straight in the eye and say hello. Some may look perfectly "normal" in public; others may remind you of caged animals.
I want people to be aware that individuals on the spectrum are loved by their families and are capable of loving others and of living lives that are meaningful and satisfying. That life with autism can be as much a cause for celebration as any other life.