April is Autism Awareness Month which kicks off with the Autism Speaks “Light It Up Blue” campaign, bringing awareness through the color blue, on World Autism Awareness Day held every April 2nd. Blue, as a popular color for boys, was chosen since boys have been significantly diagnosed more often than girls.
I recently saw an internet meme that portrayed Autism Awareness Month as a negative to those whose lives include an autistic family member. While I recognize that everyone has their own beliefs and opinions about such a cause – and I respect them all for sharing – I maintain a positive stance that without a day like today, those around me will not have the opportunity to understand this ever-growing epidemic. My true belief is that education brings awareness which leads to acceptance, in everything.
My 21-year-old son, Cullen, was diagnosed with autism, specifically Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified, about six months after his first birthday. As it was explained to me, while he had difficulties in social settings he wasn’t as impaired as those who had a so-called “classic” form of autism. There were no specific guidelines to follow except to address the obvious difficulties that he exhibited which were primarily sensitivities to large crowds and loud noises. He had (and still has) an auditory processing and speech delay but didn’t appear to have any other intellectual deficits and absolutely no problems with gross and fine motor skills.
In the beginning, I let the diagnosis determine who Cullen was going to be by sheltering him from as many uncomfortable-to-him situations as possible. I still do, on occasion, but I have a much better gauge in determining what would be best for him. However, I never sheltered others by keeping the diagnosis private because it didn’t make sense to allow them to ever wonder.
When Cullen entered Kindergarten, he had just finished a successful two years of preschool where he improved both socially and intellectually thanks to a group of talented teachers, aides, and staff. I was convinced that having him included with others his own age would provide further positive gains. Through trials and tribulations, it was made possible, which not only allowed Cullen to interact with his neurotypical peers, it was an opportunity to share about his disability. I was convinced that if they could understand his challenges they would be able to help him succeed while learning to be accepting of those who were perceived as different.
The teacher was gracious enough to allow Cullen’s Autism Consultant at the time to hold an informal session with his classmates. They seemed engaged and eager to learn, even during similar sessions held when they got older. While it was nearly impossible for them to understand the entire effects that Autism Spectrum Disorder has on an individual and those around him/her, it was more than enough to get the point across. Most of them have been accepting and understanding of Cullen ever since but my hope is that, through this type of education, they have become accepting and understanding adults, too.