I knew very little about the autism spectrum back in 2006, when I met the young boy who would become my son. My wife and I had been dating for several months when we decided it was time to introduce each other to our children. She explained that he had Asperger’s Syndrome and likely wouldn’t make eye contact — and to not take it personally if he avoided any physical contact like a firm handshake.
“And whatever you do, don’t tousle his hair,” she instructed with a squeeze of my hand. “He really doesn’t like that.”
Autism is a neurological developmental disability with symptoms generally appearing before age 3, impacting the development of the brain in areas of social interaction, communication skills and cognitive function.
It is the fastest-growing developmental disorder, affecting 1 in 68 children, and boys are four times more likely to have autism than girls.
While it is the fastest-growing, autism is also the least funded and, therefore, least understood disorder. The spectrum of autism is wide ranging, from those who do not speak (40 percent) to others who not only speak but whose talents have impacted the world: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, James Joyce, Albert Einstein, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Jefferson and Dan Akroyd are just a few.
Each summer, our family participates in the four-day KindTree Autism Camp south of Florence. The mission of the Autism Rocks camp is a simple one: For four days, let those with autism and their families be who they are, free from stares, apology or judgement. That’s because oftentimes the symptoms of autism aren’t as apparent as other developmental disorders. As a result, children with autism having a difficult time in social settings — or in extreme cases having a full meltdown — are quickly labeled as being “bratty,” “undisciplined” or simply the result of bad parenting.
While our son, now 17, is well beyond that thanks to the support of teachers, students, family and programs that have given him the tools to understand his Asperger’s, getting there wasn’t easy — particularly in those public moments under the raised-brow stare of strangers.
Through the triumphs and disappointments over the last 10 years, we have always reinforced the message to our son that being autistic isn’t any different than being short or tall: Each provide challenges as well as advantages in life. Being willing to accept yourself for who you are is the key to recognizing the difference.
Through my 17 years covering the communities of Florence and Mapleton, I’ve had the privilege of meeting many parents of children with autism, as well as adults living with autism. As I mentioned, I didn’t know much about autism when my son and I met in 2006. Since then, we’ve learned a lot from each other through the journey we’ve shared — including what it means for a father and son to share a firm handshake.
I hope you’ll join me in recognizing National Autism Awareness Month now through April 30.