Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (A.S.D.), is a condition associated with challenges relating to social skills, sensory sensitivity, speech, and nonverbal communication. Factors that affect A.S.D. can be health related, like gastrointestinal disorders and seizures, or mental health related, like attention disorders, depression, or anxiety. Because A.S.D. is a spectrum disorder, each person has a distinct set of strengths and challenges. Some people with A.S.D. need full-time care, while others are able to live independently. According to CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, 1 in 59 children were identified with A.S.D. in 2014. The condition is increasingly widespread and needs more traction in awareness and acceptance. We need more open discussion and awareness in schools, and interactions with organizations that promote A.S.D. awareness, so that we can be more informed and inclusive of people with A.S.D. and their families.
My own connection to a person with A.S.D. before I joined Autism Awareness at school is Hugo, my best friend Inez’s brother, who is now thirteen. Hugo displayed signs of A.S.D. from one and a half years old. I remember when Hugo would show symptoms of A.S.D., such as difficulty in processing loud noises, or bright lights. My friend Inez and I were only three, but I remember the anxiety in Hugo’s mother’s face and her frantic efforts to get us to be quiet, however we didn’t understand and didn’t immediately obey. Hugo, meanwhile, was in the throes of an uncontrollable tantrum. This was the beginning of many years of struggle his family faced to help Hugo navigate his A.S.D.. Awareness is the first step to acceptance and understanding. There are so many news stories about parents being asked to leave airplanes or restaurants due to a lack of understanding about their A.S.D. challenged children. While airline companies and private restaurants have the legal rights to remove unwanted guests, perhaps for the comfort of others, they mistakenly attribute the real issue to “behavioral problems” of the child in question. I can only imagine the frustration the carers of a child with A.S.D. must feel at the unfairness and ignorance exhibited towards the condition.
In 2007, the UN sanctioned April 2 to be Autism Awareness Day, in a bid to encourage the Member States of the United Nations to take measures to raise awareness about people with Autism Spectrum Disorder throughout the world. This is significant, as it signaled awareness that A.S.D. was far-reaching and needed more awareness, universal support, and recognition. April 2nd starts a month of awareness, fundraising events, presentations and special occasions to recognize those with A.S.D. around the world. With the increasing awareness and prevalence of A.S.D., we have more research about it and how to support those with the condition, as well as their families. Organizations like Autism Speaks, The Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation, and The Canucks Autism Network promote awareness about A.S.D. and provide education, current research, and support. According to an article by Autism Speaks, called “Early Intervention for Toddlers Highly Effective” dated 2009, the American Association of Pediatrics recommends all children between the age of 18 to 24 months is screened for A.S.D. This is in line with a study published by the “Pediatric” journal that confirms early intervention is key to the developmental growth of a child with the condition. They receive A.S.D.-appropriate education and support to gain better social skills. Early intervention also benefits the families, who can be informed and realize that they are not alone. It allows them to recognize the symptoms and be better equipped to support their child. Hugo has a milder form of A.S.D. than most, and with considerable therapy over the years, is verbal and able enough to attend mainstream schools. Early intervention was key to Hugo’s journey to independence.
Like mental health, the more we open communication about A.S.D., the more people with A.S.D. will feel accepted and supported. On Autism Awareness Day this year, the Canadian based Canuck Autism Network, together with Surrey Fire Fighters, launched an Autism awareness video called “Did you know?”. It was a fundraising bid where, for every share of the video, Surrey Fire Fighters would donate one dollar to Canuck Autism Network. The video went viral and other organizations got involved, like IAG and Canucks For Kids Fund, and gave donations to Canuck Autism Network totaling 25,000 dollar. Other events that are organized to raise awareness are sensory friendly movies, plays, musicals, localized walks, and fundraising activities like charity runs and golf games.
At Andover, we have a culture of inclusion and empathy, and we practice these values by encouraging openness about mental health. A.S.D. is more universal than we think, and many of us have some connection to a person with A.S.D.. Autism awareness should be a more prevalent subject of discussion in our school and we can facilitate this with more presentations on A.S.D. awareness, informal discussions to raise awareness, and offer support to those who are affected by a friend or family member with A.S.D.. Autism Awareness at Andover is a club that arranges school sanctioned visits to Northeast Arc, a non-profit organization that provides support and training to carers of people with developmental needs, including A.S.D.. Personally, these visits have made me realize that people who have A.S.D. are not that different from us: they share our hope for a good life and want to be happy, loved and accepted just as much as we do.