Are you Aware of Autism Yet?

It's April and we find ourselves once again in the middle of Autism Awareness Month.  Light it up Blue has become the color and tagline for the awareness campaign and all over the world we see landmarks and national buildings colored blue. As many awareness efforts are, it can be bittersweet to celebrate and draw so much attention to something that is- for some- a difficult journey.

I found myself thinking about this awareness idea. It’s one of those words we use a lot but when we actually consider the word it’s a little silly. Who are we asking to be aware of autism? I don’t know many parents who aren’t well aware that their child has autism. That probably goes as well for that child’s grandparents, teachers, dentist, neighbors and anyone else that spends much time with them. I don’t know very many adults on the spectrum who aren’t aware that they have autism.  And I suppose those who aren’t aware probably also don’t care. Those who work in the field are well aware. Those who are involved in research, or advocacy, or other allied fields are aware.

Who is it that we want to be aware?

My family recently made friends with another family in our neighborhood. One of their kids is different. Different in the kind of way that happens on a genetic level before a child is born. Different in the kind of way that doesn’t at all stop him from being a sweet, funny, social, and engaging little boy. He’s great and my kids love playing with him. But he’s different and it’s tempting to ask our new friends what’s up with him- because after all, I am aware that something is different.

Our new friends have not yet volunteered a diagnosis or explanation. And I love that. They have made no apologies or excuses. They have made no labels. Whatever their own thoughts and feelings are, they have only projected love and acceptance for their little boy.

I haven’t asked.  I am aware that he is different but that doesn’t change anything.  Instead of settling for being aware I have followed the parent’s example and practiced acceptance. I have accepted their child as the great little boy he is, I have treated him no differently and my kids play with their kids no differently. I am no saint- here I am as I type still wondering- huh, what’s up with their kid?  But there is a lesson in this for all of us.

Maybe autism awareness isn’t really what we need. We are all very well aware, autism is funny that way. What seems like a better call to action is autism acceptance. A month where we practice accepting that autism isn’t a death-sentence. A month where we accept that people on the spectrum have unique neurology that often makes them loyal friends, diligent employees, disruptive entrepreneurs, and every once in a while- some of the funniest people you will meet. A month where we accept that sometimes autism is really hard and there is probably a lot more you can do to support someone than being aware.

Like you know, offer to babysit. You’ll be REALLY aware then!

If we started practicing acceptance I wonder if maybe parents with a child on the spectrum might not feel as though they need to carry a card around that says “My Child has ASD”, essentially apologizing for their child. Maybe knowing that people accept their child just as they are- flapping and all, might go a long way.

Maybe doctors wouldn’t be so quick to label a child as autistic- or avoid the discussion by “referring to a specialist” if we were a little more willing to practice acceptance and not just awareness.

I wonder…if we weren’t so busy trying to be aware of autism and spent a lot more time radically accepting the children and adults who are on the spectrum…would autism even be autism?

Our friends shared in passing last weekend that someone at the grocery store came up to them and said “Oh, does your boy have Downs?”  The parents rolled their eyes as they told me the story “We said NO HE DOESN’T, thank you.” 

I secretly checked that off my list.