World Autism Awareness Day

On April 2, let’s light it blue!

You have probably seen the puzzle ribbon symbol or a rainbow-colored puzzle piece somewhere. Maybe you didn’t notice. Maybe you didn’t recognize it. Maybe you didn’t know what it was intended to represent.

The puzzle ribbon is the most commonly recognized symbol for autism awareness.

The idea of a puzzle is not universally appreciated by people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and those who love and support them. An unsolved puzzle or isolated pieces can be tough symbols. But perhaps this is precisely the point. For now, autism is largely a puzzle for most people. There is some consensus among the medical, professional and autism-related communities, but there is much more to be learned. Moreover, many of the differences of opinion are about subjective, social concerns. Is autism, as it has previously been categorized, a disorder or is it simply, a difference?

While opinions differ, it is understandable that many hope the image of the puzzle gives way to understanding, a clearer bigger picture – in terms of how autistic and non-autistic people currently misunderstand and misread each other, and in terms of interpersonal, social, societal, scientific and cultural awareness.

April 2, 2020 - The thirteenth annual World Autism Awareness Day.

For World Autism Awareness Day, people around the globe turn on blue lights and display puzzle ribbons. This is no mere “symbolic gesture.” Awareness means education and prioritizing understanding. Informed understanding is the way to compassion. Compassion leads to empathy. As long as we associate autism with a puzzle, with intricacy, we have a long way to go – and this is not an optional path. That symbol – the puzzle ribbon – is a road sign. And if you’re reading this, you are well on your way.

Different people learn differently. To get a sense of the economy, for example, some get more out of graphs and numbers while others connect more easily to anecdotes and personal accounts. People are different. This goes for understanding autism as well. Some would get more out of learning that somewhere between one and two percent of all people are on the autism spectrum. Others might connect more completely when they hear that people such as actor and comedian Dan Aykroyd (Ghostbusters, Saturday Night Live) and the shy Scottish introvert Susan Boyle who sold millions of records after appearing on the Britain’s Got Talent are outspoken about being on the autism spectrum. The idea that people with autism can excel in their fields is well-known – and there are plenty of people who find comfort in surmising that people such as Albert Einstein, Emily Dickinson, Michelangelo and Mozart were on the autism spectrum. Diagnosing at a distance is generally a disturbing practice, but if the goal is to develop compassion and understanding for historical figures who were considered odd but were also people of accomplishment, it can be a tool for good in the hands of experts. One effect of this kind of thinking is creating the broader understanding that autism does not automatically deny any individual the ability to excel.

But we also need to be more broadly informed. To be sure, sometimes the exception tests the rule, but exceptions can also misinform. In the spirit of World Autism Awareness Day, we are here to become more informed, more aware.

We now know that autism is not singular. It comes in different forms shaped by various combinations of genetic and environmental factors. Because of this and its presence in personality as well as in neurological and social functioning, autism is individual: every person on the autism spectrum has their own strengths and challenges.

Some people with autism are highly skilled while others face severe challenges. It is no less important to respect the challenges faced by people with ASD than it is to acknowledge that some of humanity’s most accomplished and important people have had autism, from scientists, writers and painters of the past to artists and tech industry innovators of today.

In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association combined what had previously been four distinct diagnoses (autistic disorder, Asperger syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder and pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified) together as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in theDiagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM-5). So, while some people still use the term “Asperger Syndrome,” it is no longer part of the professional lexicon.

Leading indicators of ASD (which usually appear by age 3) include challenges with social interactions and communication and a proclivity towards repetitive behaviors. ASD is generally accompanied by sensory issues and medical problems such as gastrointestinal disorders, seizures, sleep disorders, anxiety or depression.

Autism is diagnosed in more than four times as many boys as girls. The reasons for this remain unknown, but, to a certain extent at least, it could be the result of under-diagnosing ASD in girls.

One of the reasons it is difficult for non-autistic people to understand ASD is because it is often accompanied by strengths in addition to challenges. Along with things like hypersensitivity to sounds, tastes or light and difficulty with the back-and-forth flow of conversation, a person with what used to be called “Aspergers” could be, for example, more able than most people to recognize patterns and pay attention to detail. Regardless of whether people prefer to consider autism as a disorder or as a difference, there are challenges: For example, about half of all people with ASD – including one-third of those with graduate degrees – are unemployed. The challenges are real.

When there are such societal difficulties for any group of people, it is up to the rest of us to educate ourselves, to become more aware, and to become more compassionate in order to make this a kinder and more inclusive world. We can do that. Just reading this, you are doing that right now. We have a long way to go, but every journey begins with a single step. The next step?

On April 2, let’s light it up blue – for Autism Awareness Day.

For more information, visit: Light It Up Blue, www.autism-society.org, or www.autismspeaks.org