April is World Autism Awareness Month, with April 2nd being World Autism Awareness Day. Individuals with autism, their parents, and their teachers are “aware” of autism every day. Let’s use this month to encourage not only awareness, but also understanding, support, and celebration of all that makes the neurodivergent members of our community unique.
Here are some small actions to support individuals with autism and their families beyond wearing blue:
Smile at the parent of the child in the grocery store whose child is engaged in a repetitive behavior or is melting down. Smile at the parent who seems overwhelmed by their child. Any parent knows that order is balanced on the edge of a knife, so smile and leave the judgement behind – you would want the same courtesy.
There is always room for one more person.
I say this to my children daily. Encourage them (and yourself) to make room (both in their activities and lives) for individuals who need extra support in friendships. If someone is sitting by themselves, start a conversation; if a child is playing alone on the edge of the playground, ask if they want to join in; if a peer is talking about something unusual, ask questions and learn something. Encourage inclusivity, discourage exclusivity, and I promise their friendships will be richer for it.
Listen – don’t minimize or offer advice (unless solicited)
We are frequently uncomfortable with another’s upset emotions. We try to diffuse our discomfort by minimizing the concerns with statements such as “Don’t worry – my son….” or “He’s just a kid, he’ll grow out of it.” Breath through the discomfort and the impulse to minimize and simply listen. Don’t offer advice or your opinion, unless asked. Parents of children with autism are inundated with other people’s opinions and may not have someone who listens without the intent to respond. Be that support.
Similarly, if you are working with, parenting, or friends with a person with autism who is having a hard time – listen. No one ever learns anything when upset, so it is not the time to prompt a coping skill. Really listening, listening to words and behavior, listening to hear the other person and not to respond, may help you understand the problem and the person, in a deeper way.
Make it easier to join in.
It can be hard for individuals with autism and their families to join in on group activities for a variety of reasons. Whether the get-together is in your home, at a church or school, or at a venue, make a quiet space available for the individual to go if overwhelmed or in need of a break, ask about food preferences/restrictions, and provide details about the event so the individual and their family knows what to expect and can prepare as needed. Be proactive in this so that the parent or individual does not need to make the request.
Talk about autism
Chances are your neurotypical children are in the same grade as at least one child with autism. Talk to your neurotypical and neurodivergent children about how everyone thinks differently. Discuss how autism means that an individual’s brain works differently, but this difference is not bad. We all look different physically, it is silly to think that our brains should all work and think the same way. Temple Grandin said it best – “The world needs all kinds of minds.”
See the person, not the diagnosis
Every person with autism is first a person, full stop. Whether neurotypical or neurodivergent, people develop and achieve at different rates, in their own time. Instead of focusing on deficits, try to see the person first and join them where they are, without the distraction of where we think they *should* be.
In New Zealand, the Maori people have recently added words to their language for different health conditions. The word for autism is Takiwatanga – meaning “his/her own time and space,” indicating that people with autism have their own timing and pacing in life (my paraphrase of the definition). This focus on individual timing for development is a bright shift in perspective compared to the American way of thinking about autism, which tends to focus on deficits. If we try to let go of our expectations of a person‘s skills or deficits and approach every interaction ready to meet them where they are at that moment, then we are showing respect for that person first. Think of how much we could enjoy and encourage everyone if we meet them where they are, with no expectation of what they can or cannot do (*still being mindful and sensitive of triggers). The present is a great place to be – be there with everyone you meet during autism awareness month and beyond.