How to Participate in Autism Awareness Day and Month

10 Ways to Make a Positive Difference

World Autism Awareness
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Each year, Autism Awareness Day and Month arrives on April 2nd in a swirl of blue lights, t-shirts, school events, marches, and fundraisers. For some, it's a celebration of how far the international community has come in recognizing and responding to autism. For others, it's an opportunity to refill empty coffers in anticipation of another year of services for autistic individuals and their families. For many, it's a frustrating reminder of the gulf between people on the autism spectrum and those who speak, act, and make policy in their name.

If you're a person with autism, a family member, or just a community member who cares, Autism Awareness Day and Month can be emotionally complicated. On the one hand, it's a rare opportunity to talk about autism and celebrate individuals with the disorder in a very public way. It's also a special opportunity to raise much-needed cash. On the other hand, depending on how it's celebrated, Autism Awareness can also reinforce fissures within the autism community.

About Autism Awareness Day and Month

April is National Autism Awareness Month in the United States. It was first given this designation in April 1970 by the Autism Society, one of the oldest autism support organizations in the country. At that time, autism was described in the diagnostic literature as a rare and severe disorder which was poorly understood and underfunded. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was a pipe dream for the future, and many people with autism were institutionalized.

Thirty years later, during the 1990's, a newer edition of the Diagnostic Manual described autism as a "spectrum disorder" which included individuals with a wide range of symptoms, abilities, strengths, and challenges. Perhaps as a result of the expanded criteria, many more children (and quite a few adults) were diagnosed with autism. An organization called Autism Speaks was formed, led and funded by a Bob and Suzanne Wright. The Wrights became extremely active both nationally and internationally.

Autism Speaks and its founders were the force behind the creation of World Autism Awareness Day, celebrated on April 2 in many countries as a result of a United Nations designation. At the same time, however, many UN branches also designated April 2 Autism Acceptance Day: a day to celebrate the unique and often impressive talents and qualities of people with autism.

Autism Awareness and Acceptance are celebrated on April 2 and throughout the month of April around the world. Events range from symposia and speeches, to parties, marches, fundraisers, free events, and rallies. Many thousands of people participate in the manner and at the level they prefer.

Options for Participating in Autism Awareness Events

Autism Speaks, as an organization, has many supporters. But there are also many who actively dislike the organization and what it stands for. Supporters of Autism Speaks point to its extraordinary fundraising for research and programs, its broad ranging awareness programs, and its resources for families of children with autism. Opponents point to its history of excluding and/or pushing aside individuals with autism, its long-term focus on vaccine-related research (even after multiple very large studies had disproved a connection between vaccines and autism), and its many ads and promotions portraying autism as a sort of "soul stealing" disorder.

Give to the Charity of Your Choice

By far the simplest way to participate is to give to a charity that needs and deserves your money. This list of top autism charities includes groups that support research, provide programs, support families, and more.

If You Support Autism Speaks, Light It Up Blue.

In 2010, Autism Speaks initiated a program called "Light It Up Blue." Its purpose is to raise awareness of autism by literally lighting up iconic buildings with the color blue. The Empire State Building, Eiffel Tower, and Sydney Opera House are just some of the buildings that "light it up blue" on the evening of April 1 each year. In addition to buying and displaying blue lights, participants are encouraged to wear blue shirts, add a "light it up blue" frame to their Facebook profile, run autism fundraisers, and more.

If You Support a Local Autism Resource, Raise Funds

Both Autism Speaks and the Autism Society, while very different from one another, are very large institutions with many supporters and relatively deep pockets. Local autism resources, however, tend to operate on a shoestring. If you or your child have benefited from the work of a local organization that provides services, supports, or self-advocacy opportunities to people on the spectrum, consider raising funds for that institution. April is the perfect time to run a bake sale, car wash, march, auction, or other event as the world will be seeing autism-related information everywhere.

Volunteer Your Time

Across the country and around the world, organizations ranging from museums to theaters to art centers are creating autism-friendly events and programs. Many of those organizations are thrilled to have volunteers interested in supporting autistic individuals so that they can be fully included in the arts, sciences, community experiences, and more.

Support and Raise Awareness of Autistic Self-Advocates and Autism Acceptance

Many adults with autism are more than capable of speaking for themselves. Listen to what autistic self-advocates have to say. Use social media to share their insights. Support legislation that they recommend. One good place to find information about the ideas, advocacy, and other work of self-advocates is on the website of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) whose motto is "nothing about us without us."

Another way to support the work of self-advocates is to reject the idea of Autism Awareness in favor of the alternative Autism Acceptance Month and wear red instead of blue as a way of showing your support for autistic self-advocates. Autism Acceptance Month is an alternative to the Autism Speaks event, created in 2011 by ASAN. According to its website: 

"Autism Acceptance Month promotes acceptance and celebration of autistic people as family members, friends, classmates, co-workers, and community members making valuable contributions to our world. Autism is a natural variation of the human experience, and we can all create a world which values, includes, and celebrates all kinds of minds.

In a nutshell, Autism Acceptance Month is about treating autistic people with respect, listening to what we have to say about ourselves, and making us welcome in the world."

Create Jobs and/or Opportunities for People with Autism

In recent years, many corporations large and small have discovered that autistic traits and skills can be good for business. In general, people with autism are detail-oriented, enjoy sticking with routines, and are hard-working. Quite a few autistic people are also skilled in areas such as mathematics, coding, drawing, organizing, and otherwise bringing order to chaos. If you're in a position to do so, consider carving out job opportunities that might be right for an autistic person in your community.

If you work for or are involved with a venue such as a museum, zoo, theater, movie theater, bowling alley, or arcade, consider setting aside times when noise, lights, and crowds are low and inviting members of the autism community in. This is something that's already part of the program at The Smithsonian Institution, AMC Theaters, and several Broadway venues (among many other locations).

Celebrate the Achievements of People with Autism

There are plenty of famous people with autism (Dan Ackroyd and Darryl Hannah, for example), and it's a great idea to highlight their movies, songs, and other work during Autism Awareness Month. But it's even more helpful to celebrate the achievements of local autistic people who may not otherwise receive much recognition. Many autistic children and adults are artists, musicians, sculptors, video game creators, coders, runners, bikers, and more. Rather than simply raising awareness of their disorder, consider raising awareness of what they've achieved. Consider raising funds for scholarships or financial aid to support such people as they pursue their interests and goals.

Learn More About Autism and Share What You Know

Autism is poorly understood. But that doesn't stop folks from coming up with a huge range of myths about what causes autism, what it's like to be autistic, or how to cure autism. Do some research so that you fully understand the reality of autism. Then take a moment each week during Autism Awareness Month to share a little-known fact with your online friends.

Befriend a Person with Autism

There are numerous organizations that reach out to people with autism (especially young people), and there are many well-meaning volunteers willing to spend an hour helping an autistic child (or even adult) participate in typical activities. It's very rare, however, for a volunteer to actually become a personal friend of the person he's helping out. Rather than thinking of your time with an autistic individual as charity, try thinking of it as time with a friend. Consider inviting someone with autism to have a cup of coffee with you, join you at the bowling alley, or take part in a community event you enjoy. You may discover you have more in common than you thought.

Give a Parent or Sibling an Hour, Day, or Weekend of Respite Care

Respite is relief, and many parents and siblings of autistic people are in desperate need of respite. Even if the autistic person in their lives is relatively high functioning, autism can be limiting and exhausting to family members. During Autism Awareness Week, consider offering a little bit of respite time by taking responsibility for an autistic individual's needs for as much time as you can. Alternatively, think about taking the sibling of an autistic child out for a special activity, trip, or opportunity that would hard to enjoy otherwise. Not only will you be giving a meaningful gift to a friend or relative, but you'll become much more aware of what it really means to live with autism every day.