It’s April – Autism Awareness Month. Sometimes I hear or read titles saying, “Let’s celebrate Autism Month,” but I don’t think any parent feels like celebrating when their child is diagnosed with autism.
Perhaps the better headline would be “Let’s educate ourselves about autism.”
In the United States, autism has become an epidemic, now effecting 1 in 44 children (in eight year olds), according to the Centers for Disease Control. Autism diagnoses have risen exponentially over the years, with no end in sight. For a very long time many believed that the rise in autism reflects “better diagnosis,” which is of course a valid point – but we now know that the sharp rise in autism numbers and the current science also point to genetic factors combined with environmental triggers as the causes for the increasing autism rate.
Without getting further into the potential causes for the rise of autism, let’s consider what “Autism Awareness” should really look like. With the rise in numbers of individuals affected with autism, “Autism Awareness” can best focus on knowledge, acceptance, and integration.
As a culture, we need to stop stigmatizing individuals with autism or judging their parents for bad parenting, which leads to social isolation for the individual and their family members. Yes, it is very challenging to integrate individuals, especially children with autism, into a society that determines what is socially acceptable and what isn’t – but it is not difficult to show love, compassion, and understanding to everyone in our efforts to unify and love all humanity.
Every child and every individual with autism is different, but most individuals on the autism spectrum are highly in tune with the energy around them. They sense what you feel about them, and they hear and understand what you say, even though they might seemingly ignore you and not even look at you. It’s not easy to show love to those who can’t respond in kind, but remembering this quotation from the Abdu’l-Baha’s writings offers a great way to give love to everyone:
Cleanse ye your eyes, so that ye behold no man as different from yourselves. See ye no strangers; rather see all men as friends, for love and unity come hard when ye fix your gaze on otherness. And in this new and wondrous age, the Holy Writings say that we must be at one with every people; that we must see neither harshness nor injustice, neither malevolence, nor hostility, nor hate, but rather turn our eyes toward the heaven of ancient glory. For each of the creatures is a sign of God, and it was by the grace of the Lord and His power that each did step into the world; therefore they are not strangers, but in the family; not aliens, but friends, and to be treated as such. Wherefore must the loved ones of God associate in affectionate fellowship with stranger and friend alike, showing forth to all the utmost loving-kindness, disregarding the degree of their capacity, never asking whether they deserve to be loved. In every instance let the friends be considerate and infinitely kind.
Baha’is always strive to achieve “unity in diversity” – which not only implies diversity in terms of nationality, gender, ethnicity, and skin color, but also in those who have different abilities or even physical or mental disabilities.
An autism diagnosis does not only affect the child, but also affects the entire family. This is another important “awareness” we can all develop – to support parents raising a child with autism. Studies have shown that the stress level of parents who raise a child with autism is similar to the level of combat soldiers. On the outside, people cannot often see the daily challenges parents struggle with that can lead to exhaustion, isolation, burnout, and hopelessness. Supporting the parents of autistic children, the Baha’i teachings suggest, can generate comfort and hope:
Strive that your actions day by day may be beautiful prayers, turn towards God and seek always to do that which is right and noble. Enrich the poor, raise the fallen, comfort the sorrowful, bring healing to the sick, re-assure the faithful, rescue the oppressed, bring hope to the hopeless, comfort the destitute.
One way to live up to this quote is by supporting the parents of those with autism. You can do that by offering to babysit or help with their child, or simply ask what you can do to lessen their load.
When you become increasingly aware of autism and what it means for individuals and families, and you apply the Baha’i teachings lovingly, you’ll open up a whole new world of possibilities.