World Autism Awareness Day 2020 … and COVID-19
2 April 2020

 

COVID-19 is significantly impacting all of our lives at the moment.   It’s physically pulling us all apart while for most, emotionally bringing us all together.  It is expected that the time will come in the not too distant future that a treatment, cure or vaccine will be successfully developed and tested.

In the meantime, life in my house has not been exactly “normal” these days.   The stress of a long daily commute to and from the office has been replaced by full time telecommuting and “social distancing” with all four family members claustrophobically staying at home as my husband continues his job search with even less leads than when businesses were operating as normal.

We moved my daughter completely out of her university dorm for her sophomore year – a couple months early – and she has been forced to join the world of “distance learning.”  While far from optimal, she is resilient and will adjust and power through.

My almost 18-year-old (high-functioning) autistic son, currently a junior in the local high school’s alternative curriculum (known to some as a special education) class, has had to deviate from his daily routine consisting of classroom structure and a community-based learning schedule of a job training and field trips to local establishments to learn about money and other life skills.  He now must complete his classwork at home, which all too closely resembles dreaded homework that he had been spared from over the years because it was seen by educators as creating excessive stress after an already exhausting day for him.

How has my son handled this transition?  Surprisingly like a champ given how important routines are for those with autism.   He has created his own “new normal”: up by 6 a.m. at the latest (really kid??) to get his classwork out of the way, followed by making his own breakfast – a new (-ish) life skills lesson – and one of two daily hour-long walks with the family dog along the same neighborhood route with lunch in between at 12:00 noon on the dot.

In fact, I think he kind of likes his new normal: he was never a big fan of school, people or work.  He’d much rather stay in his room and make videos about Godzilla, or draw comic books of Godzilla, or watch movies of… Godzilla.  Did I mention my husband’s year-long project so far of actually transforming my son into Godzilla for Comicon later this year (if it still happens)?  It’s true – here he is:

 

The making of Godzilla (a.k.a Scott-zilla)

Today — April 2nd – is World Autism Awareness Day (WAAD), an international day designated by the United Nations General Assembly in 2007 to raise awareness about autism.   International days — which predate the establishment of the United Nations but which have been embraced and expanded by the UN — are occasions to educate the public on issues of concern, to mobilize political will and resources to address global problems, and to celebrate and reinforce achievements of humanity.

WAAD includes an explanation of how this spectrum disorder is a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and non-verbal communication and social interaction. It emphasizes statistics about how young children are typically diagnosed or that approximately 1 in 54 children, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has been identified with autism spectrum disorder.

Campaigns, like “Light it up Blue,” that spotlight the international designations have resonated over the years, encouraging people to wear light blue or autism awareness t-shirts or the symbolic blue puzzle piece pin.  Global landmarks typically would light up blue and residential porch lights shine blue instead of white (mine is lit – is yours?).  I really hope this tradition is not lost this week to the current COVID-19 outbreak.

More importantly, the designation of the day might suggest ways people can help improve the quality of life for those with autism so they can lead full and meaningful lives as an integral part of society.  Learning more about autism is the easiest way to begin to help.

My son wears blue almost every day.  It is his favorite color.   He’s obsessed with blue… and the number three, and did I mention … Godzilla?  None of this has changed for as long as I can remember.  As you will notice, he wore blue when he joined some UN and Autism Speaks staff in Washington, D.C. to mark WAAD in 2018 (second tall young man from left in back row):

Marking World Autism Awareness Day in D.C., April 2018

The UN’s theme for World Autism Awareness Day in 2020 is “The Transition to Adulthood,” a most timely theme for me as today, my morning will begin with a video conference meeting with my son’s team to discuss his Individualized Education Program (IEP) and his transition to life after high school.   This meeting had been originally scheduled to be in person at school, but since school is physically closed for the foreseeable future, we join so many in coming up with creative ways to carry on and focus on those who need extra assistance.

“[T]he breakdown of vital support systems and networks as a result of COVID-19 exacerbates the obstacles that persons with autism face in exercising these rights. We must ensure that a prolonged disruption caused by the emergency does not result in rollbacks of the rights that persons with autism and their representative organizations have worked so hard to advance,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres emphasized in his message marking this year’s World Autism Awareness Day.

While admittedly not as much as many other children on the spectrum need, my son has always needed extra assistance – and always will– but he will do just fine.  We all will.

Meanwhile, if you are one of those who are home for the next few weeks (or longer), please take some time to learn more about autism.

And most importantly, please stay safe and healthy during this trying time.

 

Karen Smyth
Senior Liaison Assistant
UN Information Center
Washington, D.C.