Written by Joslyn Gray for Babble.com
April is known as Autism Awareness Month, but this year there's a movement to re-brand it Autism Acceptance Month. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), an advocacy group for and by people with autism, is calling for April to be a "celebration of Autistic culture and community."
For me, this resonates a lot more than Autism Awareness Month. I'm already very much aware of autism. Two of my four kids have Asperger's syndrome, and I've been living and breathing autism awareness for quite some time now. So have my husband, our two kids with ASDs, their siblings, our entire extended family, and our friends.
Awareness months are important. They remind us to take action. Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October reminds us to schedule mammograms; in February, American Heart Month reminds us to stop eating so much salt and maybe go for a run instead. But I'm not sure I need my community to take personal action, as much as I'd like people to just accept my kids they way they are.
Perhaps there isn't much difference between asking for awareness versus asking for acceptance; both are about education, really. But acceptance requires a very small shift in thought.
Why should you talk to your kids about autism? Because statistically speaking, your child knows at least one kid with autism and interacts with him or her on a daily basis. Because the more we talk to our kids about accepting and understanding differences, the less likely they are to bully other kids. Because when you talk to your kids about being accepting of the "quirky" kids in their class, you're also teaching them to be accepting of other kinds of differences: skin colors, accents, clothing brands, religious beliefs, and music preferences.
Whether you talk to your kids about Autism Acceptance or Autism Awareness, I really don't care. Either way, please take that extra step and mention not just how people with autism are different from people without it -- talk about how they're the same, too. To get you started, here are eight things I wish everyone's kids knew about autism:
1. You can't tell that someone has autism by looking at them.
No one "looks" autistic. When a person is autistic, it just means their brain works differently.
2. Everyone's brain works differently.
There are probably kids in your class who are really good at reading, but have to work harder in math. There's probably a kid who is really good at art, but not so good at reading. Or a kid who is really good at every sport, but is afraid of public speaking. Everyone has things they're good at, and things they have to work harder at. One way that brains can be different is that some people have an autism spectrum disorder. Just like every other kid, most kids with autism are good at some things but have to work harder at others.
3. Why are they doing that?
While you can't tell that someone with autism has it just by looking at them, sometimes you'll notice a kid who's doing something different: spinning around for a long time, flapping their arms, jumping up and down a lot, or rocking back and forth. Those repetitive activities are called stims, and they're doing it because it feels good, or it's relaxing, or it's fun, or it's a way to block out too much noise around them.
4. Everybody's 'weird.'
Stimming can seem weird at first if you're not used to it, but lots of people do things that are "weird." People who don't have autism or ADHD still do all kinds of little things when they're "spacing out" or thinking hard, like biting their nails, chewing their pencils, tapping their feet, or humming to themselves. It's just that we're more used to seeing those things. Other "weird" things that lots of kids and adults do are talking to themselves, being picky about foods, only liking certain kinds of shirts, picking at scabs, or only liking one particular author. What are some "weird" things that you do? It's okay that we're all different. Think how boring it would be if we all did the same things all the time!
5. Lots of people talk with their hands.
Hand-flapping is pretty common in kids with autism. (But not every kid who flaps his or her hands is autistic, and not every kid with autism flaps.) Most of the time, hand-flapping just expresses excitement. How else do people use their hands to talk? We give the "thumbs up" and make peace signs. You raise your hand to let your teacher know you want to be called on. Deaf people might use American Sign Language. How else do you use your hands to express yourself?
6. Sometimes, kids with autism have trouble with facial expressions.
Sometimes, kids with autism won't know how you're feeling just by looking at your face. Also, sometimes their facial expressions won't match how they're actually feeling. Often, if your friend with autism doesn't seem to have any expression on her face, it just means she's still thinking about something. If you're not sure how someone is feeling, ask them!
7. What are you a fan of?
Some people with autism, especially a kind of autism called Asperger's syndrome, are really interested in one particular thing. Really, really interested. Their favorite topic could be anything: a certain video game, LEGOs, a kind of animal, weather patterns, ancient Egypt. But there are also a lot of kids and adults who don't have autism who are really into something.
Everyone knows someone who seems "obsessed" with their favorite sports team, for example. You don't have to be autistic to be really into Harry Potter, Star Wars, or a favorite sports team. Sometimes kids with autism will forget to talk about other things besides their favorite topic. It's OK to say, "can we talk about something else now?"
8. Explain the rules!
Kids with autism want to play, too! Sometimes, it's harder for them to ask if they can play with you, and they might not understand which people are playing what, and how to get in the game. Besides asking your friend if he wants to play, it can be helpful if you explain what the rules of the game are.