April is Autsim Awareness Month, and we are already hearing stirrings about various events and reasons to support the cause. It is my feeling that autism is widely known about but not well understood by the general public. It is one thing to donate a dollar to Autism Speaks at the Toys R Us check out or display a puzzle piece sticker on your vehicle. But how can you truly raise awareness either in yourself or for others? And how can you make it reach beyond one special month of recognition?
I think it starts by erasing what you think you know. Many people feel bold enough to insist what autism is or isn't, even if they have no experience with it themselves. Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning that there are kids at mild and severe levels plus everywhere in-between. Autism does not look the same in any two people. It is unlikely but possible to spend time with someone with autism and not see any "autism red flags," on a good day. In that, one of the hardest things for parents of the higher-functioning kids is hearing, "Well, at least it is mild!" Yes, we count our blessings, and yet this is like saying someone's tumor is "a little bit cancerous." When autism affects your household, on any level, the emotions at hand are fairly universal. I do not believe that parents with mildly affected children process the diagnosis differently, and in fact, the isolation level may be higher due to a lack of sympathy from others.
Even if you do not have a child with autism, you might know one. Your student, nephew, neighbor or friend's child might have autism. If nothing else, your own kids will one day study and work next to someone who is on the spectrum. With 1 in 88 affected, it is inevitable.
Reacting with compassion to individuals with autism makes a better world for all of us. In practicing kindness, we are reminded that we all are different in our own ways and simply want to fit in. The same goes for how we react to the parents of children on the spectrum. If you see a child acting out in public, please do not assume the parent has no control. In fact, he or she may be ready to cry with exhaustion after trying every standard trick in the book. Parents of autistic children spend many hours reading about autism, working on behaviors, and driving to and from costly therapy or doctor's appointments. They have had to fight hard at schools to get their child what he or she needs in the classroom. They sometimes have to make heartbreaking decisions about medications. They feel guilty about not spending enough time with their typically developing children. They often do not have time for socialization the way other parents do. They question their own strength every day. There are many lonely times.
In April and beyond, consider what you can do to help. You might be surprised how small but well-thought-out gestures can have lasting effects. It doesn't have to cost any money. In fact, some of the best gifts I have gotten were a smile or a nice compliment. If you have it in you to do more than that, consider telling your friends what you have learned about autism, or even blogging about it. Bring a meal to a family in crisis or offer to babysit for them so they can have a much-needed night out. Volunteer for a local autism organization. I think everyone benefits when kindness is at work, not just those on the receiving end.