Every year on April 2nd the world “lights it up blue” in honor of Autism Awareness day. But what exactly is “Autism Awareness?” Does it mean that we are aware of something called Autism? That we know someone who has Autism? That we use this day to share information about Autism?
There are many contradicting opinions about the usefulness of Autism Awareness Day. Some say it’s pointless because many people are already aware that Autism exists, and that wearing blue all day won’t lead to any greater change. Others say it’s a useful tool to encourage dialogue about Autism. I think in order to continue having successful awareness campaigns, we need to determine the goal we are trying to achieve by raising awareness. I believe that the goal we should be working towards is inclusivity for all people, and ultimately developing the skills to embrace our differences.
That means that instead of separating students into special education classrooms, we should be using our resources to figure out a way for students to learn in the same classroom. That means that instead of deciding what is best for an individual with Autism, we should be including the Autism community in the discussions for how to provide the best supports possible. That means that you don’t tease your co-worker who may be different than you. Or better yet, actually hire that job candidate who might be a little socially awkward, but can get the job done as well as, if not better than, other job candidates!
I welcome the opportunity to share insights about Autism at least once a year because for those people who think that they are already aware, there is always more to learn. So far, Autism Awareness has led to many services and supports being offered to children and their families, but did you know that at the age of 22 most families stop receiving these supports? Just when a young adult is ready to partake in the biggest transition of their life, a transition into adulthood—possible job opportunities and perhaps living on their own, they no longer have access to the supports they need.
More than 3.5 million individuals are diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum in America (CDC, 2014). Autism services cost U.S. citizens $236-262 billion annually, with the majority of costs in adult services – $175-196 billion (Buescher et al., 2014). In June 2014, only 19.3% of people with disabilities in the U.S. were participating in the labor force – working or seeking work. Of those, 12.9% were unemployed, meaning only 16.8% of the population with disabilities was employed (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014).
These are highly talented men and women who would be an asset to any company, and yet they do not have the same opportunities as you and I may have because they lose access to the supports they need at a critical time. If you truly want to help make a difference, in honor or Autism Awareness day, go to your workplace tomorrow and ask your HR department what initiatives they have taken to hire employees with Autism. If you would like to spread awareness, let your employer know that while each employee brings their own unique skill set to the job, some common positive traits of employees on the Autism Spectrum include but are not limited to: attention to detail, trustworthiness, reliability, low absenteeism, enjoying certain jobs that other employees might find repetitive or socially isolated. Individuals on the Autism Spectrum can make extremely competent and hardworking employees. When given the correct guidance and support, individuals on the spectrum can overcome behavioral and social challenges. Or perhaps, when the rest of us are given the correct information and guidance, we can overcome discrimination and learn to respect everyone’s differences.