April is Autism Awareness Month

By CAM WARD / Guest Columnist

Close your eyes and imagine for a moment that as a child you are woken in the morning after sleeping for only a few hours. Exhaustion. You get out of bed, but have no idea where you are going that day. Anxiety. Someone helps you get dressed, but the tag in the back of your shirt feels like a pin pricking your skin over and over. Discomfort. You sit at the table for breakfast, but can’t eat because your feet don’t reach the ground and you begin to feel dizzy. Confusion. You ride in the car without knowing where you are going. Distress. You sit in the grocery cart as told, but the florescent lights overhead cause your head to begin throbbing. Pain. Now imagine that all of this takes place and you have no way to tell anyone that you are experiencing exhaustion, anxiety, discomfort, confusion, distress, and now intense pain and this was only the first hour of your day. How would you “communicate” your desperate need to get out of that grocery store before your head explodes?

Children with autism spectrum disorder are often living with these and other all-consuming challenges as they simply navigate through the chaos of an hour or a day. They often can’t communicate their desperate needs, including the person in a grocery store passing the child with ASD screaming and kicking in a cart while his mother tries desperately to ignore the obvious display of contempt. Many remain unaware that screaming and other socially unacceptable behavior that is witnessed in such a situation is not willful misbehavior. In fact, the child is likely in distress or pain and simply does not know how to communicate or respond appropriately.

ASD is a complex neurological disorder now present in 1 in every 60 children and 1 in every 50 boys in the United States. These children may have keen interests and skills in certain areas but also have significant difficulty communicating and understanding the social rules of our world. In addition, sights, sounds, and touch can be so overwhelming that they have to scream, literally, to get our attention.

Have you heard the screams, literal or otherwise, loud or quiet? They cannot be ignored when in such great numbers. The Alabama Interagency Autism Council is working to meet the urgent need for a statewide comprehensive system of care for individuals with ASD and their families. This Council is a collaborative effort of parents, professional, elected officials and those who are on the autism spectrum. As we work toward that end these children are, in fact, our teachers, teaching us patience, compassion, sensitivity, and unconditional love—the most vital lessons of the human condition.

Cam Ward is a state senator from Alabaster.