“You should be a lawyer!” My parents used to say this to me at least once a week, usually in response to the fact that I really tend to dig my heels in for a cause. I have always liked to present the less-considered side of an argument. When I believe something passionately, I share that belief with everyone who is willing to listen.
I believe in Autism awareness. I think fundraising walks are terrific. I “Light it Up Blue” every April. I wear T-shirts and jewelry with the puzzle piece logo. My license plate is the special edition Autism plate. I even have shoes with multi-colored puzzle pieces all over them. I really love when someone asks about one of these things and I get to share my passion for teaching students with ASD.
On the less-considered side of the awareness campaign, are the actual individuals with Autism. To identify yourself with a “cause” or be defined by something people are trying to “cure” must really be disheartening. Of course, one’s feelings about ASD often depend upon where they fall on the vast spectrum of Autism Spectrum Disorder. For some, their Autism is the very thing that helps them succeed (think of engineers, mathematicians, and scientific researchers.) For others, Autism can be the factor that holds them back from being able to communicate with the world. When we spread awareness, we need to be careful that we are sharing information in a manner that is respectful to all and that recognizes the entire spectrum of ASD.
Today in my Language Arts classes, I “passed a torch” to each of my students. I explained to them that the real awareness campaign begins with them. “You are the educators in this case. No matter what you decide to do for a living, whether you are a firefighter, game designer, or veterinarian, you will always assume the role of teacher, as well.” Who better to teach the world about Autism, than the very individuals who live it every day?
I challenge my students to spread awareness every chance they get, simply by being themselves. “Talk to people about your Autism. Explain the things that are difficult for you. Express what you need to be successful in academic or social situations. Let the world see you at your finest!” Walks are great and ribbons are pretty, but there is no greater way to spread awareness than to become your best “YOU.” Not in spite of Autism, but because of it.
Have you ever had the chance to be a walking billboard? Is there a cause or something that you would like to or feel the need to represent? What if someone said to you, you are the representative of all those with blue eyes or Italian descent? What would you do? How would you want people to see you? What would your message be and would you be a great representative?
I teach social studies and we have been covering the election process. We have studied all the candidates and the two-party-system. My students took a test to see what party they most agreed with and who they most likely would vote for, if they were of voting age.
Living in a republic, they learned that we vote for those who represent us and our beliefs. We do not live in a direct democracy. We hope our delegates vote for the candidate that we want them to and trust them to be a true representative of who we are.
There is no better representative of you, than you. If I had to choose someone with Autism to represent all of us, I most likely would choose a person with Autism that is most like me. That is how we normally vote for something. We look at the candidates and choose the person that has the same beliefs and actions that we do.
I met Temple Grandin. I would say that we are very much alike in our belief systems. I really think that she is a great representative of my thoughts, feelings, and needs.
Having Autism, I am a walking billboard for the cause. I want people to understand, when they look at me, what it really is and how best to help people on the spectrum. I want to be that teacher to kids with Autism and show them who they can be in their Autism. I want to show them that they can be the best them and be a mentor. I want to represent Autism, in a way that people see strengths, not weaknesses. I want them to look up to me as the example that makes them keep going when they feel down and defeated. I want them to actually say, Well, If Mrs. Kagarise can do it, I can do it.
Every morning, when I walk out that door, I have a decision to make and mine is to always be the best representative of Autism that I can be. No, I don’t want to wear a shirt that says I have Autism. Even though, I have one. That is not what I mean, but I do want people who are not on the spectrum to look at me, and think WOW, I had no idea people with Autism could be so successful.
Recently, we had a journalist from the Plain Dealer come to IDEA House to talk politics. Mr. Larkin has been the lead political columnist for that newspaper for over 30 years. He spoke to my social studies classes and he expressed how impressed he was, with our kids. He was so excited with their knowledge and expertise on the subject. He said he doesn't like to speak to groups that do not understand politics and then offered to come back several more times to engage in conversation with the kids. He wrote me, shortly after and said I have already contacted the Akron Beacon Journal about your students there. He said, “I’m not sure what I was expecting, but they were just amazing kids.”
So many times, people with Autism get a bad wrap. We are walking billboards for the cause. We are the best representative of Autism that neurotypicals can have. We are the best example to those who have Autism, who are following, in our footsteps.One thing that we don’t want is a bunch of neurotypicals educating the community, with false information, about who we are and what we are capable of doing.
Another thing, something that I absolutely hate the most, is when people assume that I am disabled and talk to me as if I am. I was at an event the other night, and someone talked to me as if I was disabled. Really?! They were even condescending in their tone as if I wouldn’t have even caught it. I am very capable and very functional. The only one who was ignorant, was that person. Not me!
Take on the challenge of being the walking billboard of Autism, if you have it. Be the teacher to those who do not have it and be a leader to those who do.