Every April, social media profile photos turn blue and awareness campaigns are in full swing. There is a sense of excitement in seeing the support grow year after year. As the first Miss America contestant with autism, I chose my platform with 'awareness in mind,' to demonstrate the potential that is within each of us.
But soon April will pass and social media will begin to dim the blue, but our autism will remain, and our journeys continue. Our paths are much better paved today then they were for individuals that came before us. But we still have a long way to go; in fact we need to begin to move the needle of awareness to acceptance.
A recent U.S. survey found that among young adults with autism ages 19-23 included in the study, that 35 percent had not gone to school or held a job since high school. Compared to 7 percent of individuals with speech or language impediments and 3 percent among individuals with learning disabilities. That same report found that in 2009 about 163,000 U.S. children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) were living below the poverty line. A bullying report by AbilityPath.org shows that 40 percent of children with autism, and 60 percent of those with Asperger's syndrome have experienced bullying.
This is not ok. There is enough pressure for us to make it through school and hopefully graduate high school; facing these statistics is daunting, and honestly frightening. What future is there for us?
Autism Acceptance, which should really be "Ability Acceptance" to include other diagnosis like cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and others, I feel could be our generation's civil right's movement. To think that not so long ago kids and young adults like me were taken to live in institutions, or that in many countries babies born today who are like me are given up because we are considered a disgrace to the family. This breaks my heart and fuels the fire within me as an advocate. This is why awareness is only one part of the equation, until there is acceptance the statistics will continue to stack up against us.
None of us were asked to be born this way, but we were. I have grown to accept my diagnosis, but it takes time. Next time we are sitting across from you in a job interview, please remember that even though we might not be looking at you, or we're struggling to sit still, that under it all there is a person, just like you, who wants to live the American dream. We want to earn our slice of the pie and above all we just want to be respected for who we are--and not by the label of our diagnosis.
For middle and high school students who might read this, next time you opt to pick on one of us, or if you see someone else bullying us, remember we are more like you than different. If you took the time to get to know us, you might find there are some benefits to having a friend who knows every way out of that game level you've been trying to beat for weeks. You don't have to be our best friend, but look at us, talk to us, or even smile at us like we are human beings.
And teachers, or adult friends of our parents, take a moment to speak with our parents about who we are, what we enjoy and learn about our triggers and our fears. Get to know us, and our parents. Let them feel comfortable to brag or vent without judgment.
If siblings are involved, go out of your way to make them feel special, invite them to parties, play dates and make a fuss about them and their interests. Siblings of kids with special needs are my unsung heroes, their voices are often left out of the "autism awareness or acceptance" narrative. While they weren't the ones who received the diagnosis, they are impacted by it nonetheless.
Everyone has a role in this acceptance movement. It can start with a smile, and progress from there. Change can't happen unless we all commit to taking the first step. This April, let's truly come together in turning awareness into acceptance--go blue, and also go beyond, join us for #BeyondJustBlue. You may never know the impact of your action, but trust me, a simple hello can change a person who believes they are invisible.