In observance of April as Autism Awareness Month, Autism Speaks held fundraising walks in cities across the U.S.
The following column was contributed by Madeline Stender, a junior at the University of Illinois Champaign Urbana.
Autism Speaks’ Walk Now for Autism is a day I had been looking forward to for weeks. As I like to put it, it’s autism awareness everywhere, and there’s nothing better than that. Autism is something that has always been very near to my heart. Luke, my best friend since sixth grade, has autism, along with many other friends, family members, and students. The fundraising event I organized at The University of Illinois for Autism Speaks was something that was fun for me to do because I know how important resources are to people with autism and their families.
When Luke and I were younger, we both had a lot of behaviors that needed correcting. Watching Luke progress in school, with his family, with me, and then at ODTC (Oconomowoc Developmental Training Center), however, I saw that, with the right resources and supports, people with autism can, and do, make tremendous progress and live rewarding and fulfilling lives.
The progress I have seen Luke make over the eight years I have known him was a strong factor in deciding to become a special education teacher. I had always been drawn to people with special needs, but from Luke I saw how people with autism (and other disabilities) could make such amazing progress with the right resources and supports, and I wanted to be a person who helps students make that progress.
Last weekend, Luke, my friend David and I went to the Walk for Autism at Soldier Field. Despite the bad weather, there was a great turnout, and nearly $1.25 million was raised for Autism Speaks. To prepare for the event, Autism Speaks had visual supports and social stories online, and at the event there were hundreds of volunteers, security and staff members, all equipped with communication boards, and quiet rooms for people who became overwhelmed or needed a break.
My favorite thing about being at the walk was that everyone there was aware, or at least had an understanding of people with autism. A place like this is amazing because there is no judgment. Luke would walk up to new and random people and introduce himself, like he always does, and everyone there understands that his ‘quirks’ (the reasons we love him so much), are due to autism, and don’t really matter. They understand that he is just like anyone else, and, most importantly, that his autism does not define him.
While some of Luke’s characteristics, such as his self-made high pitched voice, may be due to his autism, his loving persona, quirky sense of humor, amazing way he treats his friends and family, outgoing personality and great eye contact have nothing to do with his autism.
A real utopia would be a whole world like this. A world where you don’t have to be at a walk for autism to have everyone be understanding and accepting. A world where all people, regardless of disabilities or differences, can live together without judging and being judged by differences, and where people see a person, not their disability, and are loved for who they are.
Both as a special education teacher and as a friend to many people with disabilities such as autism, one of my favorite things to do is to go into the community, because it is a great learning opportunity for everyone, including the student or friend I am with, myself, and everyone in the community.
When in public with Luke or other friends with special needs, I have seen a vast growth in awareness and understanding. While not yet entirely gone, there are a lot less awkward and confused stares and uncomfortable faces. Instead, we often receive many smiles, friendly people who (try their best to) talk to us like they would to anyone else, and most importantly, people who see Luke as a human being.
My teaching philosophy focuses on the fact that people with special needs are people in the community and everywhere. They are not “people-with-special-needs”. They are people. Similarly, Luke is my best friend. He is not my “best-friend-with-autism”. He is my best friend, and I love him exactly the way he is, and wouldn’t change a thing about him.