Back when I was a young boy growing up in my hometown in New Jersey, I was different. The town where I lived predominantly consisted of people of English, Irish, and Scottish heritage whose children were all my classmates. But, me? Well, I had a Polish last name (it was only the fact that most people called me Danny that got me through some situations), I was the skinny shy boy, I didn’t like soccer, and I was the shortest kid in my class (the latter fact remedied by a growth spurt in high school that took me over six feet tall, whew!). To say I was different would be an understatement, and to say it wasn’t noticeable would be an outright lie.
I have been thinking about those days again lately because my son, Mikey, is now about the age I was when my differences started to become an issue. Mikey is about to turn eight and my wife and I realize that his differences are now becoming apparent and making him stand out from other children his age.
It’s not just the obvious stim behaviors (so typical of most children on the spectrum) that set him apart, but Mikey’s clueless concept of personal space, loud outburst of echolalia, and his “diet” of peanut butter, popcorn, and juice are definite red flags for even a casual observer. We have noticed more people noticing Mikey recently.
Back when my differences started to set me apart from others, I found myself being picked on a lot. Verbal teasing was pretty much a daily routine and at times it was accompanied by pushing or kicking. No child should ever go through this and, until I learned to deal with it, it had a major impact on my life. When a child experiences that kind of abuse they lose confidence in themselves, become even shyer, and tend to avoid doing things other kids are doing for fear of getting singled out again.
It’s with those memories in mind that I worry about Mikey and his fellow children with autism. Like Mikey, I couldn’t change or control most of my differences. But, unlike him, I eventually grew taller, bigger, more athletic, and less shy and those changes were enough to make my differences disappear. Mikey, and most children with autism, probably won’t be as lucky to escape their differences.
Mikey is an amazing little boy. He’s smart, funny, and very happy. And that is exactly how his mother and I treat him. But we can’t control how strangers see and react to him. And this is where the urgent need for awareness and education become extremely important. It is our responsibility as parents, teachers, and therapists to educate the public about the impact of autism on an individual’s life.
Next month, April, is National Autism Awareness Month. Let’s start preparing now to truly reach out to the public and go beyond spouting the usual blurbs about the 1 in 88 ratio. Let’s use the myriad resources available from great organizations like the Autism Society to spread not just awareness of autism, but to educate about the effects of being on the spectrum and the harmfulness of ignorance. And, perhaps, with a little bit of wisdom, we’ll create the realization that, yes, our children are a little different…just like you and me.
Dan Olawski blogs about fatherhood and his son Mikey for the Autism Society. He lives with his family on Long Island, N.Y., where he works as a writer/editor. His time is spent following Mikey with a vacuum cleaner, watching his beloved New York Yankees, and continuing his pursuit of the perfect chocolate chip cookie. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.