Autism Awareness can be a polarizing subject. For some, it’s a concept to be celebrated, shared, and written about. For others, it’s offensive and can cause unhappy and resentful reactions.
The most common reason from those who stand against the day, month, and idea of Autism Awareness is that it implies that those with autism aren’t prevalent enough to be easily seen by society. When questioned, they will usually say, “People should already be aware of autism.”
They wouldn’t be wrong. People should already be aware of autism. But people should already be aware of a lot of things.
The fact of the matter is that people aren’t usually aware of anything that haven’t personally affected them or their family. It doesn’t matter whether that thing is a disability, preference, belief, or super power, once you have a loved one with that affliction, be it positive or negative, you find yourself educated on it to a deeper level.
Find a parent with a child who plays soccer and they will repeat everything back to you about the rules and regulations on the field. Find a person who had a parent with cancer and they will tell you all about the treatments doctors suggest. Talk to Batman’s butler and he’ll tell you the cheapest place to buy bat food.
I have a child with autism and, truth be told, I was mildly aware of what it was before he was diagnosed. However, as I later learned, awareness is not about simply being aware. The implication that offends those on the spectrum about Autism Awareness is, unfortunately, a faulty premise.
The reason why is that I was aware of what autism was… from television and movies. When they said my boy was on the spectrum, I imagined him lining up shoes or asking many questions. I envisioned a lifetime without hugging or affection. My mind drifted to television characters who became socially awkward doctors or could solve a mystery when no one else could see the truth. I had a world of ideas about what my son would be and how autism would affect him. I was aware of what the world told me autism was.
Lucas is none of those things. He loves to come over and hug me and, since he is non-verbal, he doesn’t ask me any questions at all. There are no lined-up toys or shoes. In fact, he tosses his bed sheets around every morning like a tornado. He struggles with certain life skills and excels at others. He needs assistance in many activities he does, but can follow a routine amazingly. He’s unlike anyone I ever met or anyone that the movies ever told me that someone with autism should be.
As he was growing up, I would press the professionals about how this could be. I’d say, “He gives me kisses throughout the day. How can he have autism?” I thought of Dustin Hoffman screaming when Tom Cruise put his hands on him. That was autism, right? Rainman said so and if my boy didn’t do that, he didn’t have autism, right?
Wrong. He does have autism. What I learned was that autism isn’t one specific thing and, from person to person, it changes. It’s one of the most unique and frankly, beautiful personality traits I have ever witnessed.
My boy doesn’t have an ego. He’s not selfish or cruel. He’s not duplicitous or snide. His autism is a big part of what makes him so loving and, in many ways, vulnerable. It’s hard to get that through to people.
They assume that his inability to speak will cause him to lash out. They warn me that as he gets older he will be “harder to control”. They make assumptions based on people they know, stories they heard, and children they’ve witnessed act out based on their own autism.
My son isn’t those people. My son is who he is and, while the world might be aware of the term “autism”, they’re not aware of my son and what makes him special. They’re not aware of his individuality. They don’t know him. It’s my job, as his father, to make sure they do.
That is what Autism Awareness means to me and that’s why it is so important. It’s not something to be offended by and it doesn’t suggest that the world is unaware that autism exists. They are aware. They know it and they see it. In order to truly understand it, though, days like Autism Awareness Day and months like April are important. It’s a chance for parents like me and people like him, provided they are able to communicate their experiences, to share their stories.
Don’t be offended. Be proactive. The world is ready to listen and it’s up to us to say it out loud. Make people aware of autism and, if they say they already are, make sure you clarify exactly what it means to you, your family, and the people you love. I think you’ll find that no matter how aware someone is, they can always use more information and a fresh perspective from people who are willing to offer it. It will help more of those in the world to understand and accept the beauty of people like my son.