Hi! I’m Sharon Lewis, the commissioner of the Administration on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, at the Administration for Community Living, here at the Department of Health and Human Services. As we celebrate autism awareness and acceptance month this April, it is terrific that we are focusing on Autistic people. At the same time, we need to do so much more to move from awareness, to acceptance and on to appreciation.
I am not Autistic. I will never, ever truly understand what it feels like to have autism. But I do know that together, we can strive for understanding, acceptance, and a building of community in this country that ensures that every person, with or without a disability, is included, accepted, respected and loved. For isn’t that at the core of our human needs – belonging, and being members of a broader community?
Here at HHS, we’re doing our part to support people with autism and their families through the delivery of long-term service and supports, research and development, initiative to support improved employment outcomes, and dissemination of information through projects like Autism Now. We know there is so much more to be done, and we are striving to build upon our efforts. We also know that while critically important, government support is only one small piece of the solution. As individuals and as communities, we all must do our part.
It is very easy to be aware of autism these days. With increasing prevalence rates of diagnosed autism making the headlines every few months, awareness is not hard. It is less and less likely that you don’t know someone with autism, or that you don’t have a family member who is Autistic. There are many questions about why this is so, and we may never really know. But in the meantime we have a glorious, diverse community of Autistic people to appreciate, here and now.
My Autistic friend Nicole taught me that for her, autism stands for A. Amazing, U. Unique, T. Totally, I. Interesting, S. Sometimes, M. Mysterious.
Amazing, Unique, Totally Interesting, Sometimes Mysterious.
Without totally interesting people in our lives, where would we be?
I have friends who are great chefs. Yet I have friends who enjoy a McDonald’s hamburger more than anything else. I have friends who can do differential equations on the back of a napkin, and others who can’t add one plus one. Some of my friends cannot walk a single step, while others run marathons. I have friends who are far more articulate than I am, and I have friends who do not speak a word. I have friends who can only tell me what they need through their body movements and their facial expressions. I have friends who prefer to speak to me through social media, and friends who want to hold my hands and look deeply in my eyes when we talk. Many of my friends challenge my thinking and my assumptions in some way. And some are just easy comfort when I need them. And I appreciate each and every one of them, regardless of disability.
The Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act states that disability is a natural part of the human experience. So when do we all begin to understand that our strength, in the myriad of our differences, includes autism and other disabilities as a critical part of our shared diversity, to be honored, and to be appreciated? Both personally and professionally, my world would be so much smaller and so much poorer without any one of these friends.
We are more alike than we are different.
We need to be, not just aware, but to accept and to appreciate our commonalities and our unique strengths. I know that my Autistic friends and colleagues teach me, support me, make me laugh, and share my life. They accept my differences and quirks, and I accept theirs.
But more importantly than my awareness, and critical to my acceptance, I appreciate – and, in many cases, love – the people with autism in my life and the reciprocal community that we share.
I hope that you will take a minute or two during April, and consider not just awareness or even acceptance but to truly appreciate someone you may know with autism.
If you don’t, you’re missing out.