The month of April is designated as Autism Awareness Month according to the Autism Society, but BYU-Hawaii staff who focus on disabilities said autism awareness, along with disability awareness in general, should be more than a month-long observance.
Barbara Hong, associate professor of special education, said college students with autism are one of the highest groups of students entering college and post-secondary education across the nation. People with ASD may have symptoms that are not obvious, said Hong, but there are three specific functions that set them apart: communication, social interaction, and behavior. However, she said the disability stigma should be done away with because students with autism are high-functioning.
Leilani Auna, director of Counseling and Disability Services at BYUH, said, “I want people to know more about disability awareness. Students can walk around and you don’t even know they may have a disability. Accommodation doesn’t mean it’s watered down. Disability is not a weakness; we must get past this stigma.”
According to the Autism Society website, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is “a complex developmental disability; signs typically appear during early childhood and affect a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. ASD is defined by a certain set of behaviors and is a ‘spectrum condition’ that affects individuals differently and to varying degrees.
People with ASD may have symptoms that are not obvious, said Hong, but there are three specific functions that set them apart: communication, social interaction, and behavior. The Autism Society website says symptoms include delayed language learning; difficulties with executive functioning (reasoning and planning), making eye contact, conversations, or motor skills; poor sensory sensitivities; and narrow, intense interests.
Hong said people with autism often have challenges in verbal and nonverbal communication. “So how does this apply in college? If you are aware of students with autism, they may feel uncomfortable working with groups, presenting in front of class, socializing, or joining a club, and that’s because it’s a part of them.”
Hong said there are a lot of myths about autism that people believe. “They do not necessarily fidget, ignore eye contact, or have an obsession. They grow and develop just like anybody else. They are capable of holding a job just like anybody else. It’s just a lack of social understanding cues. They’re often not like that and socially they may be just awkward. That’s what they are.”
What is important as we talk about autism is to not go around diagnosing people. Just because somebody doesn’t want to join a group or is socially awkward does not mean the person is autistic. They’re so different. That’s why it’s a spectrum. You cannot say, ‘Oh I’ve worked with one person with autism. I have a friend who’s autistic, that means I know everything about autism.’”
The Autism Society says, “National Autism Awareness Month represents an excellent opportunity to promote autism awareness, autism acceptance and to draw attention to the tens of thousands facing an autism diagnosis each year.”
Autism Awareness Month, recognized annually in April, is celebrated through presidential and congressional declarations, online events and activities, and local events and activities through affiliates.
Hong said, “I feel like it’s great to have an awareness month, and maybe I take it for granted because I teach special education, so every day to me is a disability day. Every day that I can talk about disability, I talk about advocacy.
“As much as we can, it’s important to educate ourselves about the people around us. Whether they are gifted, whether they are wizards, or whether they have a disability, it doesn’t matter. It’s about getting to know people as individuals.”
She said any time there is an awareness month is a time for self-reflection. “It’s not a time to say, ‘Oh I’m so lucky I don’t have autism,’ or, ‘Oh I’m so lucky I have all my limbs I’m so glad I don’t look like you.’ Be grateful. How can I use my limbs and all my capability to serve others?”
Hong suggested BYUH students invite autistic students to be in their group for a project, to the beach, a party, or a little get-together. “Whoever is the least likely person to be included, you initiate and be that person and see the difference that you make in that person’s life. Even just to walk down and go to the store with them. It’s so great to be noticed. Imagine if the campus did that and everyone paid it forward. It would affect more than just the campus; it would affect the community. We’d become aware of each other than just aware of autism.”
Hong said the campus atmosphere would “become contagious” and make people want to be better. “We need to have more than just aloha spirit; we need to have a Christlike spirit that will saturate this place. When an awareness month is over, people think. ‘That’s it until next year.’ It’s more than that. If you didn’t integrate it or do anything, then that [thought] is what it becomes. I want it to be more than that.
Hong said, “On this campus we have such a great opportunity to understand people from different backgrounds and personalities. We don’t have to classify people by their skin, label, color, wealth, how fluent they speak English, or how sociable they are.
“We should embrace each other, whether we have strengths or weaknesses, whether we are capable of something or less capable. We are here to strengthen each other. You don’t have to solve the world hunger problem, but you can be a friend to the one that is least likely being picked.”
The Autism Awareness Society invites people to share their experiences and stories about ASD with the organization through email. Their e-newsletter titled “Autism Matters” shares ideas on how to make a better world for autism. There are also opportunities to volunteer with the Autism Society of Hawaii by visiting their official website.
A different organization, The Hawaii Autism Foundation, educates and helps Hawaii families find and fund treatments for ASD and develop resources that will assure our children have the tools and transitional support they need to reach their full potential and thrive as adults.