Like many other months that are designated for “cause campaigns”, April begs the question: what do we hope to gain by observing Autism Awareness Month?
For one thing, we can communicate the stats and facts to help everyone acknowledge that autism is a big part of all of our lives. 1 in 54 are now diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control, which means that most of us know someone who’s been touched. And these prevalence rates have risen dramatically; just 20 years ago, that number was about 1 in 150. It’s also interesting to note that an autism diagnosis is 4 times more common among boys than girls. These facts and figures are a reminder that educational, vocational, and residential programs like those offered here at Anderson Center for Autism are critical.
Also a goal for Autism Awareness Month, of course, is to help people understand the neurological disorder itself. While the cause remains a mystery, what we do know is that it’s called a “spectrum disorder” because it presents quite differently depending on the individual. While some are unable to speak at all and need full-time care, others go on to college and have families of their own. Regardless of longer-term outcomes, most people with autism continue to share communication, socialization, and sensory processing challenges at varying levels. And those challenges can be vastly improved through evidence-based therapies and programs.
So, that’s a good bit of data you’ll glean from an autism awareness presentation. But there’s a message that’s far more important for us to convey, which is a much deeper one. That is this:
Being “aware” is far more than simply absorbing facts and figures. True awareness is about being illuminated and inspired in a way that makes each of us want to do our part to help build a more inclusive community for people with autism and their families.
So, what does that look like?
If you’re a businessperson, it means exploring how you can create job opportunities for people with autism, who often become the most loyal, hardworking staff members you can imagine. If you’re a school administrator, teacher, or guidance counselor, it means educating your students and families about the importance of inclusivity, and reminding them that we learn more from people with disabilities than we ever dreamed possible. If you’re a community volunteer, it may mean supporting nonprofits like ours here at Anderson Center for Autism, where you can often gain far more than one can possibly give. If you’re a community leader, it means offering workshops for your residents and merchants so that they know what it really means to be more accommodating. If you’re a first responder or healthcare worker, it means getting the training needed to understand exactly how to support someone who struggles to verbalize what’s happening in an emergency. If you’re a friend or neighbor, it means checking in on the parents and caregivers of those with autism, who can sometimes use a hand, and can always benefit from a caring heart.
And, if we all do our part – it means that siblings, parents, guardians, and people with autism feel confident that they have a circle of support – and that their community really wants to understand the ways in which we can be most helpful.
As we all prepare to return to a new “normal” post-pandemic, may we also create a better “normal” within our communities: one that is built on a desire to develop a culture of greater compassion, inclusivity, and opportunity.
We’re raising awareness about autism, no doubt. But my hope is that the heightened awareness will catalyze real action. The kind of action that allows all of us to work towards Anderson’s mission: truly optimizing the quality of life for people with autism.
Patrick Paul is the CEO/Executive Director of Anderson Center for Autism, located in Staatsburg, whose organizational mission is to “optimize the quality of life for people with autism.” Visit andersoncenterforautism.org to learn more.