Tomorrow is World Autism Awareness Day, and at this stage in the game, I'm going to bet you're probably aware of it by now. What I wish we'd move to is World Autism Inclusion Day, where we all make an effort to reach out, to communicate, to see things from a different perspective and to encourage compassion and kindness instead of fearmongering and irritation.
So yes, by now you've seen the multicolored puzzle ribbons and hearts, the blue tee shirts and blue light bulbs. Maybe you've even been following Humans of New York as they visited the players and coaches at the World Special Olympics these last few weeks. You undoubtedly know there are a lot of kids with autism, and hopefully you've read enough legitimate medical news to know they didn't get that way by being vaccinated.
Here's what you may not know:
- Autism isn't something that needs to be cured. Let me say that again in big, loud, shouty letters: AUTISM IS NOT SOMETHING THAT NEEDS TO BE CURED. My son's brain runs on a different operating system than most, to be sure. But it runs. And in some very surprising ways, it runs far more efficiently. He doesn't need a cure, but he does need help as he navigates a world that doesn't think or communicate the way he does - a world of often overwhelming stimuli that can leave him off-kilter. Would I love to see behavioral therapies and yes, even possibly clinically tested and easily obtained medicines that could help him seamlessly do that? YES. But you won't change who he is. Autism isn't all of my son, but it is intrinsically, unalterably, him.
- Autism isn't a curse, or a tragedy. Autism without support (for the person on the spectrum and for their family) can be a tragedy, however. Support is critical. Early diagnosis, early intervention, classroom inclusion, and guided external social activities are crucial for people on the spectrum. Education, respite care, and a variety of available resources that don't disappear upon adulthood make a world of difference to the families of someone on the spectrum. When all of those things are in place, you'll not only see how valuable their interactions can be, but the autistic person will thrive. I've seen it happen, over and over. Sadly, I've also seen them fall through the cracks when some or all of that is missing.
- I don't wonder what my kid would have been like if he were born "normal." If your son has blue eyes, do you wonder what he would have looked like with brown? If your daughter is a tomboy, do you sit around wondering what it would be like to have a Princess birthday party for her? Your mind might touch those thoughts briefly, but it doesn't linger because those things aren't your child. Your child is the sum of all their many preferenes, experiences and DNA. Some of that can be influenced, or even forcibly altered, but your kid will still be blue-eyed behind those contact lenses and rocking her Converse under that floofy gown you stuffed her into. Autism is like that too. Yeah, my kid might have been the captain of the football team, or gone to an Ivy League school. But he didn't because that's not him, and I love him, just like he is. To try to imagine him as anything other than the whole person he is just doesn't work.
- Autism can honest-to-God be a blessing sometimes. My kid gets right to the point when he talks. He's incapable of bearing a grudge. He's taught me to communicate more effectively and not rely so much on body language and nuance. He refuses to be anything other than authentic, and he'll accept you for exactly who you are - no matter who you are. How many of us can say the same?
In short, my kid will be my kid, and I will love him as exactly that kid, whether anyone is "aware" of him or not. And he's wholly wonderful - not in spite of his autism - but along with it. Give him a chance, he'll win you over, too.
[P.S. I'm posting this today instead of tomorrow because my daughter turns 18 tomorrow and I plan to pen a rambling, sobbing entry for that instead.]