April is Autism Awareness month! As we prepare to celebrate the 5th anniversary of Temple Grandin School, I’ve been reflecting on how awareness of autism has shaped my life. Prior to receiving a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome for our son in 1998, the only exposure I’d had to autism was Dustin Hoffman’s Rainman. I remember vividly our early days of discovery, as our minds and hearts opened to a whole world of caring support I never knew existed. Fields like occupational therapy, special education, behavior analysis…filled with professionals who would walk alongside us and change our lives for the better.
Sometimes awareness is bittersweet – as in those moments when unusual behaviors reminded us that autism is indeed a pervasive developmental disorder, not something our son would “grow out of.” Lining up songbooks in a pew while preschool peers acted out the Christmas story. Being taken advantage of on the playground. Missing an entire concert tour when associated anxiety took over at the onset of adolescence. Oh yes, I was aware of autism in those moments, more aware than anyone would ever want to be.
In addition to my own moments of awareness, I’ve also experienced awareness through the eyes of over 40 students and families. I’ve learned that individuals with autism are as diverse as the rest of us, each with a unique set of strengths and challenges. Just like you or me, they are proud of their strengths and maybe a bit embarrassed to talk about what’s hard for them. But unlike many neurotypicals, they are rarely held back by what others think. They are secure in their ideas, and not afraid to speak their mind in any situation. We ALL need these perspectives!
Autism Awareness is empowering – to individuals with autism, but even more, to the families and communities they live in. Hearing my now-20-year-old son coach his neurotypical sister on anxiety management, I am empowered to confront my own anxieties. Witnessing our TGS students’ self-advocacy as they speak to pre-service teachers about their educational needs, our staff is empowered to persist in providing specialized programming for these very special adolescents. And as we continue together in community, day by day, we see students growing more confident in expressing who they are, knowing how autism affects but does not define them. That’s what Autism Awareness is really about.