I am fortunate enough to be a Mum to two beautiful children who just happen to be on the Autism spectrum. My daughter, O, is nine and my son, L, is 5. To my husband and myself, and to others who have come to know them, they are the most caring wonderful children who are totally inclusive of other children. And yet, some children struggle to be inclusive of O and L because they don’t understand why O and L do the things that they do.
Long before we knew that O was on the spectrum she had an amazing group of culturally diverse friends. I can recall one particular afternoon when I collected her from day care and I asked her who she had played with that day. At the ripe old age of 3 years, she replied with “oh I played with my black friend!”
At the time we lived in a city that was quite racist and all I could think of was what, you can’t say that, what are people going to think that I am teaching you?
When I pressed further with O as to why she said “black friend,” O replied “well, she’s my friend and her skin is black.” This was the start of her literalness showing. She wasn’t being racist, she was simply stating a fact. I, on the other hand, was horrified. I also had to go back into the centre to find out her new friends name!
I grew up in a very culturally diverse community. Throughout school I could count the number of Caucasian students in my classes on two hands. The cultural diverse out-numbered the Caucasian by a huge number. And yet here I was explaining to my then three year old daughter what she should and shouldn’t say and why.
A few weeks after this conversation, I was in a government office with my daughter along with a lot of other people from young families through to elderly people. We’d being waiting in the queue for some time and during that time my daughter had started playing with a young Sudanese boy – neither of them understood each other as clearly English was not his first language. But they were having a blast and that is all that matters. At one point, an elderly person turned to me and said out loud “you’re not going to let your child play with THAT child are you?” This elderly individual clearly had little tolerance for other cultures. I responded with “I sure am, and they’re having fun” before turning away.
Again I was horrified, but not by anything that my daughter was doing. In fact I was incredibly proud of my daughter, for at the age of three she didn’t see differences in others as a bad thing. She saw differences in others as an opportunity to learn more about others and she still has this view.
We’re now at the point in our autism journey that the exclusion of O and L by others is becoming an issue. However the exclusion is not from children but by adults.
When we mention that both O and L are on the autism spectrum we receive comments of “oh I’m so sorry,” or “oh so they aren’t capable of achieving anything?” or “I guess they’re like Rain Man?” or “they don’t look autistic” or “I guess you want a cure” and many others. The responses really show a lack of understanding from the general community about what autism is.
There are numerous celebrations throughout the year in which we celebrate culturally diverse communities and yet society still struggles with the idea of being inclusive of those with differences that aren’t as obvious.
Autism is considered a hidden disability and as such society struggles with the idea that my children look “normal,” whatever that may be, and yet they behave differently at times. O struggles with loud noises and will wear block out ear protectors to block out the background noise so that she can concentrate. L struggles with busy places and will often end up in meltdown down mode due to the overload of sensory input. The number of times that I have been told “stop your children from being naughty” or have had other parents tell their children that they don’t want their children to play with my naughty children is beyond the joke.
So how we do we raise children who are inclusive of others when their parents are not inclusive of those with differences?
Worldwide the month of April is considered to be the month in which to spread Autism awareness and acceptance.
What is Autism Awareness?
So what is Autism awareness? It is about raising the community’s awareness of the needs and accomplishments of both children and adults who are on the autism spectrum. Autism awareness is about educating the community that there are many different ways in which autism can present.
Autism is better known as “Autism Spectrum Disorder” for a reason and it is truly a spectrum. Autism isn’t just Rain Man or an individual sitting in the corner of a room rocking back and forth. Autism is both of those ideas and everything in between. I can see the spectrum myself in my two children. There is no one look to Autism.
No, I’ll take that back, Autism does have a look.
Autism looks like a child with red curly hair and bright blue eyes that light up when he’s engaging in his most favourite past time – anything to do with superheroes.
Autism also looks like a child with strawberry blonde hair that goes super frizzy when the air is humid and whose eyes change from the brightest of blue to grey when she is confused, sad or anxious.
Autism looks like a child who excels academically but struggles socially and emotionally. Autism looks like a child who loves to read The Complete Works of Shakespeare for fun!
Autism looks like one child who struggles with her gross motor skills and yet her fine motor skills are on par with her peers. Autism also looks like another child who excels in anything to do with gross motor movements but his fine motor skills are below average.
Autism awareness is being aware of this fact, that there is no one look to Autism. Autism can and does look like anything.
When we raise the level of Autism awareness in the community, we can then raise the level of Autism acceptance. And in the long term Autism acceptance means the inclusion of individuals in their communities.
Deep down, I have the belief that we all just want to be accepted for who we are. We all have things about us that are unique, different, possibly annoying to those that have befriended us. We all have different perspectives about the world around us. We all have different strengths and weaknesses. And these differences should be accepted.
Individuals with autism are no different. They just want to be accepted for who they are, stims and all.
Autism is just a neurological difference. It is just a natural variation of the human form in the same way that cultural diversity is a variation of the human form.
Acceptance and inclusion of any individual, autism or not, is about being respectful and listening to what they have to say about themselves as well as accepting them for who they are. Acceptance and inclusion is about celebrating individual’s achievements, acknowledging their strengths and accepting that differences are a great thing.
After all, as Dr. Temple Grandin has said “This world needs different kinds of minds to work together!”