By Sandy Petrovic, RN, BSN
April has long been designated the month to focus on autism awareness, but the mission is evolving. Awareness is good, but it is just a first step. Enlightenment as to potentials and realities is critical to understanding and accepting autistic individuals. And that acceptance must lead to embracement, inclusion, and opportunities.
There is a neurodevelopmental difference in how the brain functions with autism, leading to differences in thinking, perception, and behavior—it affects every aspect of life. Its characteristics vary hugely from person to person, which is why it is called a spectrum, but it also includes some incredible talents and positive attributes that aren't often enough revealed.
The differences cannot be stereotyped; each autistic person needs customized supports to learn, accommodate, and function in the neurotypical world. But just as autistic individuals need to learn about the social rules and ways of the "typical" world, the reverse is also true! Just as one would strive to learn about another culture to understand its people, we must look beneath the surface of an autistic person to discover what lies within. They are not broken or wrong—they are simply different.
Our family is blessed that our young-adult autistic son has found the support and mentorship to fulfill his dreams and work to his potential. Basically nonverbal until age three and the product of special education through the tween years, David is now a junior high teacher with a master's degree and is a national speaker (including a TEDx presentation). He recently moved into his own apartment and is independent with minimal support. Therapies, accommodations, self-advocacy, grit, and an evolving life team have enabled a fulfilling life—and one in which David embraces his autism and stays true to himself. Through our writings and public speaking, we are dedicated to educating and motivating others to take on the mission of April every day of their lives so that others can fulfill their potential.
Assumptions about ability must be eliminated! If a chance is not given, how will we ever see the talents, potential, and person within? This is applicable socially, academically, and in the job market, where autistic individuals are disproportionately underemployed and unemployed. Be part of the change!
Sandy Petrovic, RN, BSN, is a tutor/instructional advisor at a college academic support center for students with learning differences. She and her autistic son, David Petrovic, co-authored Expect a Miracle: Understanding and Living with Autism and many other writings.