April is Autism Awareness Month. I don’t imagine there are a lot of people who don’t know what Autism is. Well, stereotypical Autism, anyway–not speaking or making eye contact, hand flapping, head banging, a penchant for numbers, and a nearly debilitating dependence on schedules. While these traits are true for a lot of Autistic children, they’re not for all of them. I think that’s why Autism Awareness Month is important. People need to be aware that Autism is not a cut and dried diagnosis. It’s a diagnosis based on symptoms and every child presents with different symptoms of varying degrees. (See Autism Spectrum Disorder.)
Sometimes, the symptoms are so mild, they are missed by the general public and even some doctors (my experience with that here .) Sometimes, the symptoms are so mild, they are missed by the child’s own family members.
My son is Autistic, but very high-functioning. He’s been medication and therapy free for years, is mainstreamed into a regular classroom, and was even tested for Advanced Placement at school. Now that he’s almost 12, I’ve noticed some of his autistic behaviors returning, probably because of the onset of puberty. While making dinner the other night, I casually mentioned to him that I noticed he was stimming lately and asked him if he thought he needed to go back to the doctor.
My 8-year-old daughter Molly, who was coloring at the kitchen table, perked up her ears at the word, “doctor.” (Traumatized by her recent bouts with strep, no doubt.) ”Why would he have to go to the doctor? What’s wrong with him?”
Mikey looked at her in his usual “oh my gosh you are such an idiot” way and said, “I have autism. Duh.” and rolled his eyes.
Molly’s eyes got really big. ”Mikey is Autistic?!”
Mikey rolled his eyes again and shook his head.
I told her, “Yes, your brother is autistic.”
She was flummoxed. ”I did NOT know that.” She sat there, wide-eyed, and I could almost hear the wheels turning inside her head.
My wheels were turning, too. How could she not know that? It’s not like it’s a secret. I worried if maybe I didn’t talk about it. Like I was ashamed or indifferent about it.
Molly had an ah-ha moment. ”Is that why Mikey runs funny? And talks a lot?”
I opened my mouth to tell her to not be so mean, but Mikey beat me to it. ”Yes!” he said in his slghtly-offended-it’s-the-truth-but-you-didn’t-have-to-say-that voice. Then, “Jeez,” quietly, in the “you are an idiot” voice.
The next day, Molly informed me, while I was making dinner (again) that she’d been watching Mikey. ”I think I see that Mikey’s autistic now. I just never noticed before.”
Mikey, who was in the kitchen with us, rolled his eyes, and in his perfect tone that conveys contempt and incredulity with the ignorance of the world, or, in this case, his sister, said “YOU are really unobservant.”
And that’s what Autism Awareness Month is about. Being more observant. Recognizing Autistic behaviors when you see them. Realizing that the “weird” kid in your class or at the park with your child has a very good reason for mumbling to himself or walking the perimeter of the playground. Abstaining from offering unwanted and unwarranted advice on how to discipline a child to a mom whose child is having a full-blown meltdown in the Walmart aisle over what kind of cookies she put in her cart. Listening politely as a kid goes on and on about airplanes or vacuüm cleaner parts. Ridding yourself of any preconceived notions of what Autism is, and, instead, being aware of what it looks like.
For more information about Autism Spectrum Disorders, to become an Advocate, or to find ways you can raise money for Autism research, visit www.autismspeaks.org.