April 2 is the start of the internationally recognized World Autism Awareness Month. In recent years, many have advocated, and some changed the name to World Autism Acceptance Month, citing that awareness is simply not enough. I could not agree more, and if it were up to me, I’d go a step further, and call it World Autism Action Month. After all, not until we move beyond awareness and acceptance to action is when we can truly make a difference in the lives of those affected by autism.
Several years ago, a friend posted a link to what he called, “some good news for the day.” It was a video clip of a teenage basketball player with autism, who, after being an assistant to his high school basketball coach for a year, is given a chance to play in a game. He not only rises to the occasion but ends up scoring baskets multiple times, to the amazement of his coach and teammates. As he is carried off on the shoulders of his teammates amidst cheers and hollers, the CBS commentator finishes the story with, “Because he has autism, Jason is used to feeling different, but never this different, never this wonderful!”
This moving story got me thinking that even though most people are tolerant and accepting of those who are different, there is still much prejudice toward people with disabilities. At the core of prejudice is the thinking that everyone should for the most part be the same, think the same, respond, and behave the same. But when we get beyond that and realize that each life is created diverse and unique, then we learn to not just tolerate but accept and appreciate differences in others and give them a chance to shine, just like Jason’s basketball coach did.
Jason later said that this event gave him the confidence that he could do anything. After he graduated, his passion for the game landed him the job of assistant coach at this former high school. His story is a reminder to all of us that there is greatness waiting in every child. It just must be given a chance.
Jason is not the only autistic individual whose life changed because someone believed, saw the possibilities, and provided the opportunity for them to shine.
When my grandson was first diagnosed with autism, I knew next to nothing about what it was and what it would mean for him. Someone told me to watch the then newly released HBO movie “Temple Grandin” to start learning about his diffability. The movie chronicles her college years and her struggles to overcome challenges and only briefly touches on her childhood.
When Temple was young, her mother was accused of being a “refrigerator” mother and told her lack of maternal warmth had caused her daughter’s autism. The advice she received was to put Temple in an institution, as there was no hope of her ever speaking or amounting to anything. Her mother, however, refused to listen to the naysayers. She acted and went on to teach and support her initially non-verbal daughter in any way she could.
Today, Mary Temple Grandin (born August 29, 1947), is an American professor of animal science at Colorado State University, a consultant to the livestock industry on animal behavior, and an international autism spokesperson. She was one of the first individuals on the autism spectrum to publicly share insights from her personal experience of autism.
This clip from the film, when Temple talks about the difference her mother made in her early years, had a profound effect on me and moved me to tears. It inspired me to make a conscious commitment to be for my grandson what Temple’s mother was to her.
Kodi is a Korean American singer-songwriter and pianist. In 2019, he auditioned for the fourteenth season of America's Got Talent and within two weeks, the video of his audition had over 50 million views on the internet. At the end of the season, he was declared the winner.
Kodi was born with optic nerve hypoplasia, causing him to become legally blind. He was also diagnosed with autism at an early age. Kodi is what is called a musical savant, that is, someone with musical talent and abilities that are considered extraordinary even in a person who is not autistic.
Kodi was given a chance to compete in this competition because, as his mother says in this clip of his audition, “We found out that he loved music early on. He listened and his eyes just went huge. He started singing, and that’s when… I was in tears because I realized he is an entertainer.”
His mother Tina recognized his talent and supported and encouraged him from thereon until his Golden Buzzer moment and beyond. In a later episode, Simon Cowell commented, “Kodi Lee, we are nothing without people like you!”
Officer Tim Purdy
Not all individuals on the autism spectrum attain fame and fortune, but they need our support and compassion just the same. Officer Purdy did just that as he stepped up and went the extra mile while fulfilling his duties.
In 2016, CNN reported the story behind a photo-gone-viral of Charlotte police officer Tim Purdy consoling a young man. The video clip shows officer Purdy responding to a call that could have gone terribly wrong involving the distraught autistic teenager. He intervened by getting down on the ground with Jerimiah to calm and settle him.
Many reacted with the comment, “We need more people like him.” However, after watching this clip, I propose we all say, “I am going to be like him!” Regardless of our rank or position in society, if armed with compassion we make the extra effort to show up where there is a need, as this officer did, we will make a difference, too.
Classified for years as "intellectually disabled," Dan Bergmann’s education, and later his success, took a dramatic turn thanks to one teacher’s thoughtful action and intervention. Dan, a Harvard Extension School graduate tells of his journey and the impact his teacher had on him in this video clip. He says, “There is a lesson in this for all of us. If someone seems like they can’t or don’t want to learn, look for the physical obstacle and remove it.” His teacher looked for a way to remove the obstacle to his learning, and once found and removed, Dan made amazing progress. If it can happen for Dan, it can happen for others, too.
Flight Attendants and Passengers Show Kindness
Last, but certainly not least, parents and caregivers of autistic children need concrete action to support them as well. A mother and her autistic son were showered with kindness on their flight home after the 4-year-old had a meltdown on the plane. Flight attendants and passengers alike showed overwhelming kindness, which made it an experience this mother will never forget.
Each of these stories illustrates the wonderful things that can happen when autism awareness and acceptance are turned into action to support autistic individuals and their families. If we all look beyond the differences to the potential within and create opportunities for those on the autism spectrum, I am certain we will start hearing a lot more “good news” stories—like the ones about Jason, the basketball player with autism, Temple Grandin, Kodi Lee, Jerimiah and officer Purdy, Dan Bergmann, and the mother and her autistic son on their flight home.
Happy World Autism Action Month!
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