Every April I question whether I should join in with world autism awareness month or not. It feels a tad uncomfortable when I see tweets filling my computer screen and I can’t help but wonder whether people will click on a link and learn more about autism. In fact I often wonder how many people switch off when they see their timelines full of autism tweets. I reckon there are quite a few. But then when I look at my children I’m reminded that I have a responsibility to them. They haven’t got the interest or the ability to self advocate so it’s up to me to speak for them and defend their right to a life free from misunderstanding and prejudice.
But the question is how do I, how do we, educate others about autism and aspergers in a society that is becoming increasingly divided? As uncomfortable as autism awareness can feel, hiding away is not the answer because to hide away means we’re not there to challenge the myths about autism that circulate in society.
On the other hand tweeting stats and pretty pictures seems a rather empty guesture too. I mean if I publish the autism ribbon on my blog or tweet some statistics (and I have done) will people understand what autism really means or will they just look at it and think “thats a pretty picture” or “mmm that’s interesting”. Its a question that has also got Katrina at Kats Cafe thinking. As she explains in this post, switching on a lightbulb, sharing a photo or ribbon and spreading statistics may make us feel as though we are spreading awareness but are we? She argues that though our actions may be well intentioned this sort of awareness spreading is passive. Displaying a picture or statistic may represent what we believe in or what we are passionate about but it’s not active awareness building. It doesn’t tell someone the realities of living with autism, it doesn’t educate them or attempt to break down stereotypes. As Kat goes on to explain “building awareness is writing about perceptions and stereotypes, its reading those posts and intelligently reacting and responding to the ideas they represent.”
I agree and indeed there are many many articles written by both self advocates and parents and carers that do this. They have certainly helped me to feel less isolated and to learn more about autism but the challenges remain: how do we reach those outside the autism communities; the employers, the policy makers, ordinary people, those who think they know autism but actually don’t.
Well, in my opinion, online autism awareness campaigns are not enough. We also need to get out into our own communities and actively work to dispel the misconceptions about autism. It’s about educating those close to us; family, friends, neighbours and colleagues and those that work with our children. It’s about finding the confidence and the courage to explain why we or our sons and daughters do this and that. It’s about challenging people who stare, make comments or who complain about us or our children. Of course I realise there are times when we practically cannot do this but when an opportunity presents itself then we must try and grab that moment to educate someone. A great illustration of this is when Four Sea Stars talked to her son’s class about autism – you can read about it here. It is an inspirational post which shows what can be achieved.
The point is that relying on a global online initiative is not enough for spreading awareness no matter how active it may be. We also need to educate those closest to us and that starts at home.