Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A Reflection on Autism Awareness Month, 2008

A confession: Years ago, when my family first began to learn about autism, I didn't think much about "Autism Awareness Month." It seemed like an innocent gesture, but also a naive wish for good will and public recognition for a condition that wasn't well understood. And, it seemed to me back then, it was one effort (among many) to grab a spotlight for a public tired of such things.

I have changed my view. This month, in the midst of some demanding times at work (which have left me fewer chances to post to Autism Bulletin), I didn't have much time to think about autism awareness. And yet the issue found me, as I took a walk near my home yesterday and saw a sign hanging at the public library proclaiming to passersby that it is Autism Awareness Month.

I realized this Autism Awareness Month is an essential symbol, and, potentially, a supportive lifeline to parents who must know: You are not alone.

You are not alone when you struggle with a challenging behavior problem, at home, at a family gathering, a house of worship or at the mall.

You are not alone when you find yourself sitting with people who have trouble understanding what you are going through—be they friends, family members, educators or health care professionals.

You are not alone when you have to make difficult choices, be they decisions about finances or careers, or just about how you would spend family time—choices that many other families are not put in a position to make.

And you are not alone when you find creative reasons to celebrate. Good behavior? Celebrate! Avoiding bad behavior? Celebrate! An advance in swimming, reading, eating, sitting at a table, brushing teeth, pretend play, peer communication, [fill in your favorite here]? Celebrate!

And so we are not alone when we recognize that it's Autism Awareness Month, and give credit to the efforts of advocates around the world who have not only elevated the profile of autism as an urgent public policy issue but have helped us understand we are not alone.

Some examples, from my e-mail in-box:

• April 2 was World Autism Awareness Day, an effort involving Autism Speaks, a leading advocacy group. Organizers scheduled events in more than 20 countries and at the United Nations in New York to discuss autism spectrum disorders, remove the stigma associated with the diagnosis and build societal supports for families.

• The head of the Autism Society of America rang the opening bell at the NASDAQ stock market on April 3.

• Toy retailer ToysRUs continued its efforts in past years by highlighting products that are suited to kids with disabilities. They worked with Autism Speaks to create the list. Clearly, this is geared to make sales for the retail chain, but they did choose to create this list which you can find here.

Those were just some of the events. Maybe you noticed them, or maybe you noticed media coverage about them.

Then again, maybe you didn't because you have too much to do, and you barely have time to do much of anything except to keep your life going. That would be understandable.

Just know that there are people like you doing the same.