Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Be A Friend

April is nearly upon us again. I can already hear the groans from the autism community, and bloggers opening their laptops in preparation. We have a whole month ahead when the world looks our way. Or do they? There are actually some pretty important causes with special days, weeks, or the entire month of April devoted to raising awareness and fundraising. So that got me thinking: if I lived a life without autistic children, where I hadn't worked with disabled adults for the bulk of my professional life, then what would make me want to throw my support (and my money) behind Autism this April? Why would I focus on Autism over Parkinsons Disease (11th), premature babies (15th) or Hemophilia (17th)? All of them have a "world awareness day" in April. Why would I focus on Autism for a whole month when I could also be devoting myself to IBS, Child Abuse Prevention, or Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention, all of which are worthy causes affecting millions of people globally, and which claim April as their "month"?

So I took a little look at what those days or months mean to those communities. The common denominator in each of those causes? Agreement. A united front. Communities that care for themselves. Perhaps to an insider this mightn't be so true, I don't know, but as far as their world awareness days and months go they stand together. The Autism community? Not so much.

We can't agree on whether it's awareness we want and need, or if we've been there, done that and we need to demand acceptance. We disagree on who is worthy to receive any fundraising dollars. We disagree on who should have the right to a voice, to an opinion, or even the right to feel the emotions we all feel at any given time. We disagree about whether autism is even something that does affect us, whether it's a part of us, or both. We can't even agree on a stupid publicity stunt to get the world's attention as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge did so successfully last year.

I've seen pies in the eyes, Twizzler challenges ("What the hell are Twizzlers?" asks everyone outside of the USA- It's plastic pretend liquorice basically). I've seen suggestions designed to mimic sensory overload, of using AAC for 24 hours instead of speech, suggestions of lining things up and sharing photos on social media. I've seen sarcastic "Drinking for Autism" suggestions (it's also Alcohol Awareness Month incidentally so probably inappropriate!), and I've seen "Spend time with my child so I can take a break or have a nap" posts. I've seen posts about respecting and celebrating neurodiversity, and I've seen posts demanding our society change for a neurology they don't understand, and will never want to understand as long as this community remains so aggressively divided.

The reality is that even the most tongue-in-cheek suggestions arise from the needs and feelings of a part of our community. The fact is that no one is actually wrong here. The world does need to be more aware of autism as an entire spectrum, and autistics need acceptance regardless of where on that spectrum they happen to be right now, tomorrow or forty years in the future. Parents and carers need support, services and understanding just as much as their children (young or adult) do. Neurodiversity really does need to be celebrated. My kids need to be celebrated as the amazing individuals they are, just as much as they need awareness, acceptance, respect, and appropriate services and education. As a parent I need to know that the world values my children, and also that I can find the support that I need to be the best parent that I can be for my kids. The reality of a spectrum so wide and diverse is that there is also a spectrum of needs, and none is less relevant than any other. Perhaps though, we need to be looking to those who can best meet our needs and offering our own helping hand to those whose needs we do understand and relate to.

There is another International Day in April that caught my eye. "Pay It Forward Day" is on the 30th April. I don't know how long the has been around, but the movie premiered in 2000, and I think we're all aware of the concept. Someone does an act of kindness and you pay it forward by performing an act of kindness for someone else. It sounds simple doesn't it? It doesn't depend on someone being deserving enough, or "severe" enough, or on how much that person does for anyone else. It doesn't matter whose voice is the loudest, or who writes the most angry blogs. It's just about showing kindness for the sake of showing kindness and making someone's day, and possibly their life that little bit better.

A few weeks ago I was in my local shopping centre doing my groceries. It was Friday night, I wasn't feeling well, and I was feeling incredibly anxious about my house going on the market and the string of upheaval we had ahead. We needed food though so I dragged myself in there. In my foggy brain I realised on the way out that I'd forgotten to buy a bottle of coke which I needed to make a sensory bottle for Bubbly for KidsChurch so I went to the nearest vending machine, went to put in my money, and I saw this:

A small gesture, with some kind words from a total stranger, and you know what? It made my day. I still have the little note in my purse to remind me of that act of kindness in a moment where I really needed it.

So here's my suggestion, autism community. Stop thinking about what will make headlines and raise awareness and money. Look at the autistics around you. Look at the families around you. We have some amazing people in our autism community- autistics without children, autistic parents of autistics, and NT parents of autistics. All different people with different viewpoints and experiences, and they are incredible people who make a huge difference in the world around them- both locally and globally. Want to know the common denominator? They let their actions do the talking, not just their words. 

They're the first to offer their number to someone in need. They don't judge the person struggling- they ask "How can I help?".

They chat online to a stressed out parent who hasn't slept for days and inject a bit of humour, and often a cyber hug into a tough night.

They share their experiences in a world that never understood them, without projecting their hurt onto others. They choose to love and be a friend, instead of hating and tearing down.

They see the mother fighting tears at playgroup with their newly diagnosed and overloaded toddler and they make calm and quiet steps to form a friendship.

They open their homes and their hearts to other families and they celebrate each other's kids as much as their own.

They support the newly single mother (or father) who gives everything she's got for her children while she feels like her world is crumbling.

They make a video to help a scared little boy see that it's okay to have your hair cut.

They share a beer with a dad who just doesn't know where to turn for help.

They try again and again to understand each other because they value friendship over ideology.

Wordy blog posts, snarky memes and screamed tweets never changed anyone's life for the better. Accusatory or defensive comments on a FB thread never changed anyone's opinion, or made life better for anyone in our community. But those acts of kindness I've listed above? Many of them were gifted to me, and they have made more difference to my life than anything I have ever read or heard, because friendship will always mean more than words.

Want to help build up our community? Be a friend. Want to change the world for autistics so that society views them with value and respect? Lead by example and treat others that way regardless of whether you agree with each other or not. Want the world to take notice of Autism for the right reasons? Stop talking at each other, stop arguing, and try getting out of the rut of dissent that so many of us are stuck in. Listen to those around you. Want our community to be the one that is celebrated and inspires people to offer their support in April and beyond? Then do what it takes to stand out for being a community that cares, not as one that is perpetually at each others throats. Make the first move. Reach out, and be a friend.