"I met one of my best friends, Sarah, on the first day of kindergarten,” said Elizabeth Nichols, a senior at Auburn University. “In most ways, Sarah is just like you and me - she loves to laugh, sing, have fun. She is kind, funny, and perceptive. Breakfast dates are our favorite things. We love to talk about school, Disney World, movies, and our friends. In some ways, Sarah is a little different from me because Sarah has autism.”
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental disorder that affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. According to the Centers for Disease Control, an estimated one in 68 children in the United States are identified with autism spectrum disorder.
This April is Autism Awareness Month, but it’s more common to encounter someone who has misconceptions about autism than someone unaware of it. Autism is vastly misunderstood and difficult to define, since the spectrum describes a wide range of symptoms that vary in type and severity.
"Over the years, I have learned how much autism can vary from one person to another,” said Shelby Segrest, a special education major. “There is no specific formula for talking or hanging out with someone who has autism. Just like how I am different from my roommate, all people who have autism are different.”
The number of individuals diagnosed has increased by nearly 120 percent since 2000, making it the fastest-growing developmental disability and an urgent public health care need. This increase may also be attributed to the broadening of the diagnostic characteristics of the disorder, as well as broadened public awareness campaigns like Autism Awareness Month.
The first National Autism Awareness Month occurred in April of 1970. Nearly 50 years later, April is still celebrated as a time to raise awareness around the differences of those on the spectrum and educate the public on Autism. PBS Kids recently introduced Julia, a Sesame Street Muppet with autism, and even the White House lit up blue to honor autism awareness.
But what can you do to participate, and how can you help support local awareness?
“Other people can get involved by simply looking around themselves,” said Nichols. “People with autism are just people too. They are at your school, your church, or the grocery store. The next time you see a family with a child with autism or a person who may have autism, say hello. Be friendly. Treat them like you would want to be treated! Just know that they may interact with the world a little bit differently from you.”
Both Segrest and Nichols advocate for using “people-first” language, which puts the individual before their disability when talking about someone with autism.
“Using people-first language is HUGE. This means that, instead of saying ‘the autistic girl,’ you can say ‘the girl with autism.’ If we define a person by their disability, we are looking at them based on what they can’t do rather than what they CAN do,” said Segrest.
At Auburn University, there are many resources and organizations that provide opportunities for students to get involved. Best Buddies, BraveHearts, Special Olympics, Miracle League and the Exceptional Foundations are all examples of programs where you can meet friends with autism.
There are also special events held throughout the year. Alpha Xi Delta, a social sorority at Auburn, often holds benefit nights or fundraising events for their philanthropy, Autism Speaks. A Freshman Leadership Group, All for Inclusion, began the “Amazing Auburn Program,” a special event held in the spring that highlights the talents and abilities of those with intellectual development disorders (IDD) rather than their disabilities. Even the current Miss Auburn, Ashley Moates, ran on a platform of making dreams come true for those with IDD.
“I'm pretty biased, but Best Buddies does an incredible job of getting people in the community with IDD connected to students at Auburn.” said Segrest. “As a college buddy at Auburn, you have an amazing opportunity to became a best friend to someone. My buddy is someone I see every week. She brings me so much joy and we have the best times together.”
Elizabeth Nichols can also speak to the positive impact of a friend with autism.
“Living life with Sarah as my friend has taught me so much. Autism allows her to interact with the world in a different way than many of us. Sarah has taught me what real love and empathy looks like. She knows how to see beyond the exterior down to the good in everyone. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without Sarah,” said Nichols.
No matter how you choose to raise awareness and show support, Autism Awareness Month is a great time to get started. To learn more, visit http://www.autism-society.org/get-involved/national-autism-awarenes....