World Autism Awareness Day 2016: Turning awareness into understanding and action

2 April, 2016

AAT Research’s founder, Dr Adrian Attard Trevisan, writes about the importance of awareness but also understanding and action in an article to mark World Autism Awareness Day 2016

Today, April 2, we celebrate World Autism Awareness Day. Every year, national governments, health authorities and autism organisations hold events to raise awareness about people who are on the autism spectrum.

Autism and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are general terms for a group of highly complex neurological conditions that cause, to varying degrees, difficulties in social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication and repetitive behaviours. The name “spectrum disorders” stems from the fact that these disorders manifest in each person differently.

ASD affects millions of individuals worldwide. Over the past five years, improved diagnosis and research has allowed us to understand a bit more about what causes these disorders – a combination of factors that include genetic mutations and environmental stresses. Yet, while a number of therapies are available to help manage the symptoms of autism, there is no cure.

Thanks to initiatives like World Autism Awareness Day, many people are aware of autism, but the sad reality is that very few really know what living with autism means. Individuals with autism face lack of understanding and discrimination daily, further adding to the challenges in their day-to-day lives.

For many parents and carers, April 2 is not a day of celebration. It is a stark reminder of the disruptive condition their child has, and the suffering they have to live with for the rest of their life.

Yes, awareness is important. By being aware, we can understand. We can empathise. We can restrain our judgments. We can attempt to be helpful. We can learn. We can teach others what we know.

This is a good start but it is not enough. Acceptance is the goal.

Autism is no walk in the park for those who have it, nor for their loved ones. Autism is not a choice for these children. As a society, however, we can choose do to something.

We can choose to turn our heads in embarrassment; we can choose to let our helplessness dictate how we do not interact with them; we can choose to judge them. We can choose to nod in favour of greater awareness and shy away from doing what is right.

We can also choose to act.

We can start to understand those on the spectrum and promote acceptance and inclusion for all those who living with autism. We can start by not labelling them or ignoring their needs and suffering. We can start by treating them no differently than we treat others. Simply because they have a condition that may manifest itself physically or in the form of differing social abilities does not justify exclusion or discrimination. If that were the case, we might as well exclude ourselves and most of the population: we are all diverse.

Let us not look at April 2 as just another occasion to raise awareness and collect funds. Lighting buildings up blue is a cool thing to do and a great initiative, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone additionally did something small to bring a smile to a child’s face or relief for their parents – not just today, but throughout the year?

How can you and I help? Show them love. If you are organizing a birthday party for your son or daughter, do invite their classmate who has autism. You have no idea what that means to the child and parents. The child needs friends and the opportunity to improve their social skills. Be the one to make the first move.

Avoid using language that does more harm than good. Parents need a helping hand not a judgemental stare or comments like, “He looks so normal” or “At least it’s not cancer”. Instead, let’s ask the parent what they need and how we can help.

If a child throws a tantrum in a shop or restaurant, let us not judge or shake our heads. Let us not mumble or complain that the parents should be ashamed of themselves and should control and discipline their child. What one may assume to be a tantrum could be the result of overstimulation due to excessive noise in the room or flashing or bright lights. Try and picture yourself in a room full of loudspeakers and flashing lights. If you can imagine what you’d feel, that is what a child with autism may have to deal with every day.

These are small steps that have a positive impact on persons with autism and on their parents.

Let us all do our part and support Autism Awareness Month by turning it into Autism Action Month.