This past Saturday was World Autism Awareness Day, and the month of April is Autism Awareness Month. This means there will be more media attention devoted to autism-related issues over the next few weeks, and that presents an opportunity to do more than just slap some pictures of puzzle pieces on walls and repeat those oft-cited 1-in-110 stats. Maybe we have a slightly-greater chance of getting the stories we tell (and experience) every day into the hands of people whose minds are open enough to absorb them.
Looking at a building lit blue does not teach anyone anything except that "there is a thing called autism," and it only teaches that if someone has the personal curiosity to question why the building was illuminated blue in the first place. I'd rather see members of the ASD community devote their energies to true advocacy, talking openly about the beauty and challenges that come along with life on the spectrum.
In the spirit of Awareness, I'm going to repeat some things I wrote last April that I'd like the world to be 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.
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 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.
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.