Today is World Autism Awareness Day, a day we dedicate to our friends, family members and everyone who has autism. And that’s a lot of people. According to the latest estimates, 3.5 million people in the U.S. have some form of autism. One of those 3.5 million is our oldest son. He was diagnosed 13 years ago, and is now a freshman in high school.
Autism awareness has come a long way during the time we’ve been an autism family. Today you’ll see many people “light it up blue” in social media and beyond to help spread awareness. Skyscrapers will light up blue, famous people will wear blue lapel pins or shirts, even the Seattle Seahawks will light it up blue, all to show support. Other symbols, such as the puzzle piece, emphasize the complexity of autism, and how we are still piecing together its parts to gain a better understanding of it. All these have become common representations of this day and of autism more broadly.
But what if our messages of support went beyond building awareness and focused more on the tangible accomplishments of people with autism? Even something as simple as a car bumper sticker could take on a whole new meaning when we frame the discussion from the vantage point of autism. We’ve all seen bumper stickers on family cars that promote or even brag about their child’s accomplishments: “Proud parent of an honor roll student” or “Jake #7 Little League All-Star.” For autism families, their child’s accomplishments might go unnoticed by most people, yet their hard work is just as worthy of our praise and especially deserving of their parents’ bragging.
I have personally witnessed a child with autism work as hard as an all-star athlete to tolerate a schedule change or try something new (bumper sticker: “My child can handle schedule changes like a pro!”). Another child with autism will spend many hours learning how to perform basic life skills such as getting dressed or brushing teeth (bumper sticker: “My kid works really hard and gets things done!”). A teen with autism might struggle for months to make a new friend or tolerate the sensory chaos of lunch hour at his school (bumper sticker: “My teen is handling high school just fine!”). A young adult with autism will spend significant time and effort learning the basics of his new job, just trying to make it through the work day without melting down (bumper sticker: “My son can manage his work day and anything life throws at him!”). These are all accomplishments that require extraordinary effort. We can and should celebrate them.
So today, on this World Autism Awareness Day, let’s start to reframe the conversation by celebrating not just having autism, but living it. Not just by recognizing who people with autism are, but what they can do. Because what might seem like ordinary events for most of us are extraordinary accomplishments for them.