Autism Awareness – what does that mean? Is it that we are to be aware that there are individuals who experience the world differently, and with that knowledge, we should be sensitive and compassionate? Or is it understanding what Autism is, what it looks like, and what are the symptoms? There are so many ways one can be aware of something. The mere definition of ‘aware’ is having knowledge or perception of a situation or fact. Given that this is Autism Awareness Month, I pose the question: How does one actually become aware?
Speaking as a Parent of children with Autism, any engagement with the public or others outside of our home creates opportunities for those we encounter to become aware. When my child is experiencing a difficult moment in the store, for example, those around us have an opportunity to show compassion by not immediately assuming that my child is ‘misbehaving’ or is 'being a brat'. There are erroneous assumptions and even unsolicited comments such as “He just needs discipline” or “What kind of Mother are you, ignoring your child.” Other parents or those who work with children with Autism and ABA, know that sometimes, to extinguish negative attention-seeking behavior, there comes a time when ignoring is the best thing you can do to encourage new and more appropriate behavior. So, awareness in those situations means that people show compassion and understanding, not only for the challenges of the child in that moment, but also for the parent who is doing everything they can to help their child. Awareness can also come when you encounter an older and verbal individual with Autism who is having a difficult time with their emotions. This has definitely happened to our family with our now teen-aged boys with Autism. The most startling episode occurred when, upon arriving home, my 15-year-old son did not want to go into the house. He was extremely upset, swearing at us, and refusing to get out of the car. Mind you, this is 9 o’clock in the evening and it is dark outside. When he finally got out of the car, he ran down the street of our cul-de-sac. Thank God we live in a court with only one access point. My husband stood in the middle of the street, my daughter on one side and I was on the other. While manning the exits so he would not get out of our court, we were not able to stop him from knocking on our neighbor’s door – AT 9 O’CLOCK IN THE NIGHT! Startled neighbors looked out their windows. A door opened to his knock and he said, “Can I come to your house?” Imagine, opening your door at 9 o’clock in the evening and having a stranger say, “Can I come to your house?” Thankfully, I have kind neighbors who even entertained the idea of letting him hang out with them. After declining the offer and getting him into the house, we went back to the neighbor and thanked them for being so nice and understanding. We explained that our son had Autism and that he was experiencing a particularly difficult day and just needed a moment to calm down. Now this is Autism Awareness in action!
So, back to the original question – WHAT IS AUTISM AWARENESS? My answer… it is the willingness to learn and show compassion when encountering individuals who might be experiencing the world differently. It is my hope that Autism Awareness is a campaign to educate and inform the public so that when they encounter individuals with Autism, they are welcoming, kind, and compassionate. For parents, know that every moment that you are in public with your child, someone is learning something about Autism, whether your child is having a good day or a challenging one. Be open to respond to genuine questions. In the end, your efforts will contribute to Autism Awareness.
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