Awareness ribbons are one of the strongest ways organizations bring attention to their cause; everyone has seen a pink ribbon to raise awareness about breast cancer. For the month of April, the ribbon to look out for is one with a colorful puzzle pattern throughout it, representing Autism Awareness Month. According to the Autism Society, the puzzle pieces signify the “mystery and complexity of the autism spectrum.”
“I love that there is a whole month dedicated to raising awareness about autism, as opposed to just one day,” said Millersville alumni Emily Breanna, who works with kids with autism.
What is autism? The Autism Society defines it as, “a complex developmental disability” that can affect individuals diversely and to different degrees.
“On a scale from one to ten, there were kids with autism as severe as a ten who needed constant care and who couldn’t speak, to kids as low as one who just needed some extra help,” said sophomore Andrew Hartman on his experience about working with kids with autism.
As Hartman said, some children cannot speak, which can be a symptom of autism. This is not to be confused with not having the ability to talk; these kids just have a harder time expressing their thoughts and their emotions, according to Breanna.
“I know kids who will go to the store without shoes on because they can’t stand to wear them,” said Breanna.
This developmental disability is currently one of the fastest growing in the United States, and unfortunately is not getting the aid for research that it needs. The National Institute of Health has a budget of close to $31 billion, but only $169 million go directly to autism research, which makes up only .55 percent of their total funding.
There is no one cause of autism that researchers can point at as a direct explanation of the disability. A general acceptance of how autism occurs is that there are abnormalities in the brain structure or function, but how these abnormalities start are unclear. It could be a genetic vulnerability, certain toxins ingested during pregnancy or environmental factors which are higher in our environment more than before. Another theory that is being developed is that certain vaccines can cause autism, but there have been no real links made between the two.
“One of the sad things I have seen while working with kids with autism is the lack of knowledge in the people who make up the world around them,” said Breanna. “I know parents who will dress their kids to the T, so when they go out to the grocery store people are less likely to stare at their child while they are having a tantrum. Another issue is the way people will talk to them.”
Breannna explained that often adults will talk to the kids she works with as if they were still infants. “They still need to be treated and cared and disciplined for as if they were a kid their own age without a developmental disability.”
So what should be done to spread awareness about autism? “I think that the ribbons are a kickstart to getting the word out there and to bring attention to autism and to the month, but wearing a ribbon or sharing a picture of the ribbon on Facebook is not a way to become aware about it,” said Hartman. Breanna also agreed with this and said that, “If you ever can, volunteer in a classroom with kids with autism and other developmental disorders. You can see firsthand what they are like and if you don’t have time for that watch a video on YouTube or read articles about it.”
The most important thing to keep in mind with kids with autism is that they think differently than people without autism do and that autism affects everyone differently.
“The people I work with and myself have often wondered what it would be like to be in their heads and to be able to hear their thoughts, since some of them don’t tell us how they feel. Instead they’ll scream or in the case of this one child I work with, he’ll just keep repeating phrases he has heard around his house to show that he is upset,” said Breanna.
This month is a very important time to become aware of something that affects so many kids in the world around us. If you would like more ideas on how to become aware or involved with people with autism, a great place to start is the Autism Society’s website that provides different ideas and links to videos to watch, events to be involved with and facts to read.