April is Autism Awareness Month.
It's not only about making people aware that autism exists. One in 68 individuals in the United States have autism. Most people know someone or know of someone that's affected by it.
It's not about just wearing blue for a day or making your kids wear blue to show support, although I do appreciate that and hope that there was a teachable moment in there somewhere!
What it is about: Understanding that every person with autism is different, just like every person without autism is different. The numbers don’t tell the whole story.
The autism spectrum is broad. People with autism can be highly intelligent or intellectually disabled. They may be verbal or non-verbal or pre-verbal. People with autism may be very sensitive to sensory stimulation, covering their ears or shying away from crowded places; or they might be drawn to that sensory excitement. A person with autism may be quiet and withdrawn or be very engaged, gregarious and talkative.
It takes getting to know someone with autism to find out who he or she is. It takes casting aside judgment and any idea of how someone should be, should communicate, should behave, should interact. It may take stepping outside of your comfort zone to reach out and create a friendship that is different from other friendships. It is worth it.
A recent study showed that more than half of children with autism have been bullied at some point. As a community — in our schools, camps and synagogues — we need to be clear about no tolerance for bullying.
That 1 in 68 number? That's just the number of people with autism. The number of people affected by someone’s autism is much, much higher, so Autism Awareness Month is also about sounding an alarm, raising awareness that these people and their families need support.
We need financial support for families when parents lose jobs because they’ve had to leave work too many times unplanned to pick up a kid from school; we need respite care for parents so they can refresh and regroup before returning to what can feel like the trenches. In our Jewish communities, we need to be aware that the financial stress of autism may prevent parents from joining synagogues, sending siblings to Hebrew school or camp. We need to create support systems to welcome families who may feel unable or uncertain about joining synagogue activities.
The whole family needs services. People with autism need support services; they need appropriate educational settings with adequate services available; they need life skills and job skills training. Parents need to feel that their children are safe when they can't be there: at school, in the job place, in the community and in the future. Siblings and grandparents need support, too. We all need friendship, understanding, a no-judgment zone; we need the world to accept their loved ones and themselves exactly as they are.
Look around your school, synagogue, organization. Are people with autism and their families there? If not, make a commitment to work with others and create an autism-friendly environment. Autism awareness leads to autism acceptance, and who among us doesn't want that?
Dani Gillman is Cofounder of Birdhouse for Autism , an app for parents (like her) raising kids on the spectrum. Dedicated mother to a 10-year-old daughter with autism and a 1 year-old-son, Dani’s an enthusiastic blogger, baker, do-it yourselfer and an outspoken advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves. At her synagogue Shir Shalom, her daughter is fully included in Hebrew school with the supports she needs.