April is autism awareness month. Launched over two decades ago by the Autism Society, the whole month is designed to bring awareness of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to those who may know nothing or who may be misinformed about ASD, and to increase acceptance of individuals diagnosed with ASD. A casual glance at Google trend data indicate that these awareness efforts might be temporarily successful—over the past 5 years global Google searches for the phrase “ASD” spike around the end of March and first week in April, and bottom out during roughly the last two weeks in December. ASD is a chronic diagnosis affecting over 3.5 million Americans, and over 76 million people worldwide. It can carry significant challenges for the individuals who are diagnosed and their friends and families, so it’s critical that ASD awareness efforts continue past April. Here are a few simple suggestions for how you could help in that effort.
- Educate yourself before spreading awareness. This is perhaps the most important item on this list. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of ensuring that the information you spread about ASD is correct. An article from FactCheck.org provides some helpful guidelines for identifying whether your information is credible. While this article focuses on fake news articles, its recommendations apply to finding information about ASD as well. At the top of the list of recommendations is to consider the source. For ASD, you can find reliable information from several organizations (e.g., Autism Society and Autism Speaks), peer-reviewed research, and credible news outlets.
- Use social media to spread awareness. Social media can be an incredible tool for garnering attention, especially when you have a large following. In fact, this month Autism Speaks has put together a mosaic of pictures people have shared from Facebook and Instagram designed to raise awareness and acceptance of ASD. Given the variety of social media platforms, and the variety of media (i.e., text, pictures, video, etc.) that one can use, the limit is really one’s imagination in terms of what you can do to spread awareness. A look at the #AutismAwareness tag on twitter provides some suggestions, including sharing relevant stories, pictures, and events while ensuring HIPPA compliance.
- Attend events to support the cause. There are a huge number of events designed to raise awareness and money to support organizations and individuals with ASD, and to provide education about ASD and the latest research on ASD. One of the most well known are the Autism Speaks Walks held throughout the nation. Other events include national Autism Speaks events, ABAI conferences (including an annual autism conference), ABAI state-chapter conferences, and the Autism Society national conference. There are likely many other local events which we are leaving out here.
- Talk to people about ASD and introduce them to individuals with Time-tested and proven, merely talking to people about ASD can help as much as our other suggestions. While a personal conversation may not go viral like a social media post, it can be significantly more meaningful, especially if you share your personal stories and experiences. If possible and assuming both parties are willing, try to introduce your friends and family to an individual with ASD. Reading about ASD and re-tweeting social media posts can only go so far. There is really no replacement for acquiring personal experience with an individual with ASD.
- Become an advocate in your state. Another critical element of education and awareness involves advocacy. For example, Autism Speaks engages in advocacy efforts to increase research funding, financial tools, and improved healthcare and supports for individuals with ASD. Several regional chapters of the Association for Behavior Analysis International, for example, have worked successfully with their state legislators to pass licensure laws in the state, laws which are designed to ensure that treatment for individuals with ASD is provided by qualified practitioners, and that said treatment is high quality, safe, and necessary.
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By Zachary H. Morford, PhD, BCBA-D, Lucero Neri-Hernandez, MS, BCBA & Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D of bSci21Medai, LLC