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Increasing Autism Awareness―and Compassion

Tomorrow marks the start of Autism Awareness Month, a time to increase understanding that, with hope, will last the rest of the year

I’ll be wearing blue all day tomorrow—and I hope you will join me.

Tomorrow kicks off Autism Awareness Month. The month’s events will launch over the next two days with “Light it Up Blue,” the symbolic effort to shine a light on autism. For the campaign, prominent buildings across North America and the world will turn their lights blue to raise global awareness and commemorate World Autism Awareness Day on Saturday.

Individuals can take part by wearing blue clothing and sporting the blue puzzle pin logo of Autism Speaks or those of other autism awareness groups and organizations.

Autism is a cause that’s very important to my family and me—a member of our extended family has autism, and many family friends have children who are also on the autism spectrum.

Undoubtedly, each of you has someone in your life who has autism or you know someone who has been affected by it. Given statistics, it’s highly likely, if not certain that I’m right in this assertion. 

Take, for instance, a statistic cited in last night's public hearing: in 1997, the Wilton Public School System had two children that needed special attention for autism. This year, that number was up to 56.

Today, it is estimated that 1 in every 110 children is diagnosed with autism, making it more common than childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes and pediatric AIDS combined. Boys are more frequently diagnosed: current US estimates are that one out of 70 boys is on the autism spectrum. And the rate of diagnosis is increasing around 15% annually. Some research points to it being even more common than those statistics I quoted above.

This is the fourth year marking a worldwide day for Autism Awareness. “Light It Up Blue” is a campaign led by Autism Speaks, the nation's largest autism science and advocacy organization. They hope the effort will help increase awareness of autism spectrum disorders and serve as a reminder of the scope of the global impact that autism has.

While the impact autism has certainly is global, quite often it’s felt more acutely on the individual, personal level. The word autism is a general term that refers to a spectrum of different developmental brain disorders, and the way autism manifests can look different from child to child. The experience can vary widely from family to family, and it’s often something that’s misunderstood by someone outside.

There are many, many challenges faced by people who have children with autism, not least of which is lack of compassion, understanding or acceptance by others. We know children who have been bullied or left out by other kids. We’ve heard of birthday invites that never materialize or play dates that don’t get extended. We’ve seen strange, disapproving looks when behavior isn’t typical in a restaurant or another public place.

Hopefully, tomorrow can be a day when the tide of acceptance, understanding, tolerance and compassion becomes more strongly associated with people of all differences. But for this overwhelmingly common childhood disorder, I’m hoping that blue becomes the color of overwhelming compassion.

Kathy Rosenbaum March 31, 2011 at 03:27 PM
Heather, I appreciate this piece. My oldest son is on the spectrum-Nonverbal Learning Disorder- which I call "Asperger's Lite". Our friends and family have been fabulous but life was very difficult for our son until we got a diagnosis AND had a full battery of testing to determine how he learns and how his brain works. He went from feeling stupid & out of place because of his inabilities to being confident and learning to focus on his strengths. It's a serious condition that will affect a child's entire life. Early intervention is absolutely crucial.
Heather Borden Herve March 31, 2011 at 04:39 PM
Thanks Kathy. It's a subject near to my heart and I hope it makes an impact on even just one person. I know 500 words is not even the tip of the iceberg, but the more autism gets talked about, the more good can come of it.
Carolina Corrigan March 31, 2011 at 06:44 PM
Dear Heather I will be there with you !! Autism is very close to my heart since I have a daughter who struggles with it everyday and I wholeheartedly agree with Kathy that early intervention is crucial. Autism is so difficult because the disorder is so complex. The saying "if you have met a child with Autism , you have met ONE child with Autism ,"it is SO true , and thats why (in my opinion)it is so hard to navigate the therapy world , the school world and your everyday world cause there is no right or wrong answer. There are studies that show certain therapies work better then others but you have to try it before you know if it will work for your child. I am very fortunate to have a great team , both school and private , to help my daughter thrive and reach her true potential. Again, I really appreciate your words.
KMP March 31, 2011 at 10:20 PM
I also appreciate your bringing this topic to "light" -- as we hear objections to how "expensive" it is to educate those with special needs (autism spectrum disorders included) and how much it strains the town budget, it is a huge investment in the entire community: those who benefit directly from in-school services, those who now get more of the teacher's attention as the child receiving services improves and adapts better to the classroom, and all of us as a whole for learning that autism covers a very broad range of behaviors and actual diagnoses, and ALL of these children (as many as several per grade in every town) have just as much to offer as every other child who is being educated by our schools.
Eustace Tilley April 01, 2011 at 11:32 AM
One of the signature events in my life was raising a pup who then was used to help an autistic child in Pa. We initally raised her to become a Guiding Eye dog but she was a bit too skittish to meet their high standards. We had the option of keeping her but we wanted all the training to go to someone in need, Her success with the autustic child became the model for a new autistic service dog training program at Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Patterson NY. Studies have shown that trained pups can help develop an autistic childs interaction skills. Its a great program that produces tangible results.
Joe Burke April 01, 2011 at 11:51 AM
that sounds like a wonderful program. Thanks for sharing. I wish Patch had a "like" button!
Eric Cameron April 01, 2011 at 01:44 PM
I agree, this is wonderful. I have read the stories on the benefits of dogs with autistic children. My niece has autism so I also see the impact first hand. Thanks Heather for a great article on an issue that impacts many more than people realize. http://www.northstardogs.com/autism.shtml

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