Rather than light it up blue...

Mark Autism Awareness Day by asking how you can help

April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day. While awareness is great, there continue to be misconceptions about what autism is and how people with autism function in our society.

Springfield has a wide range of support services for children with autism, but this support is quite lacking for adults. There is no pathway to diagnosis for adults, and no support services. There is only one support group – The Adult Autism Group.

While many hear the message by Autism Speaks to "light it up blue" and to wear a puzzle piece to raise awareness, the vast majority of the autism community considers this offensive. Blue was originally chosen because autism was previously seen as something that affected primarily boys. However, especially in the last decade, research has shown that autism can be expressed in a multitude of ways, and there are often gender differences in expression due to the pressures of socialization. Girls and women are often misdiagnosed, as they do not express autism in the more stereotyped ways.

Autism Speaks has spoken of autistic people as burdens, and of autism as a disease to be cured. This is ableist language. We are not burdens, but productive members of society. We see our neurodiverse brains not as a failure, but as a different way of viewing and interacting with our world. We sometimes need support to navigate our lives, but that does not mean we make us invalid.

If you are interested in supporting autistic people, please donate to groups like the Autism Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), a national grassroots disability rights group for the autism community, made up of autistic people, whose motto is "Nothing About Us Without Us." If you want to wear a symbol to help raise awareness, please choose the gold or rainbow infinity loop, rather than the puzzle piece. We are people, not riddles to be solved. Autistic people are valid and valued members of our community.

However, is social media activism in the form of raising awareness what we really need as a community? As autism activist Samantha Stein (Yo Samdy Sam on YouTube) notes: "We are already 'aware' of autism. What autistic people need from society is more widespread education about our neurological differences, and willingness from the neurotypical majority to accommodate us in situations they may never have considered before as 'unfriendly' to autistic people."

What practical things can you do to make a tangible difference in the life of someone who is autistic? Quite simply, if you know an autistic adult, or a family with autistic children, please just ask if there is a way you can help. Many families with autistic children are in dire need of social and other support.

If you have an autistic coworker or employee, or encounter us out and about in the public world, please have some patience and treat us kindly. Don't assume we're creepy or rude if our social skills are not up to snuff or we don't look you in the eye. If we stim (self-stimulating behaviors such as hand flapping or tapping), realize it's part of how we regulate our nervous systems. Don't stigmatize us; accept us.

If you are part of a business or facilitate meetings, think about the ways you may be alienating neurodiverse people, and make an effort to make the environment easier for us to navigate. And if you don't know how, again, just ask. Making the environment quieter, using less harsh lighting, offering online ordering and curbside pick-up service, and having a way to communicate other than by telephone (email, online registration, etc.) all is a part of helping us to be able to better negotiate a neurotypical environment.

As a community member, you can make an effort to learn more about the current research in autism. Stereotypes and myths abound, but the complete picture of autism is becoming more apparent all the time. While autism can be challenging, and there are a wide range of abilities and needs in our community, we cannot forget that for many of us, our neurodiversity is also a gift to be celebrated.

Like many older women who mask heavily, Carey Smith of Springfield didn't realize she was likely on the spectrum until it became apparent in her son. She is involved in her community, holds several jobs, and is a mother to two wonderful children.