Observed each April, World Autism Month is a celebration of people with autism. The event was launched on April 2, 2008 by the United Nations as Autism Awareness Day, and has since evolved into a whole month. Over time, the focus has shifted from building awareness of autism to building acceptance.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that there are around one in 160 children with autism worldwide, while in the U.S. the number is estimated to be one in 44. According to the U.S.-based group Autism Speaks, the term “autism refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication.”
Yet the manifestations of autism are as diverse as each individual. As autism advocate Dr. Stephen Shore, who is himself on the spectrum, puts it, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”
In the U.S. Autism Speaks is spearheading the World Autism Month initiative, with the major goal of helping to “create a world where all people with autism can reach their full potential.”
With that in mind, here are some of the ways you can support this mission, not just in April but throughout the year.
While acknowledging that each person with autism has their own strengths and challenges, here are some general guidelines that can aid successful communication for everyone involved.
Communication skills for people on the autism spectrum can vary widely by age and individual, so it’s key to remember that challenges often emerge from misaligned experiences and expectations — rather than the “problem” being purely one-sided.
Digital technology can play a key role in helping people with autism develop social, conceptual and practical skills. There is a huge range of assistive technology (AT) tools for people with autism, from speech-generating apps to robots that teach social skills.
Video chat is essential in helping all of us connect, and has been especially valuable during the pandemic. However, the experience can prove frustrating for those with autism because it makes it much harder to pick up on nonverbal cues.
That’s why Cox has created Project Convey, a tool that displays emojis to reflect people’s emotions during a video chat. The tool draws from three data sets — facial recognition, words used and tone of voice — to generate expressive emojis in real-time. “Research shows that people with autism prefer emojis because they find them easier to understand,” explains Dr. Michelle Dean, an associate professor of special education at California State University, and one of our expert partners in Project Convey.
While the Project Convey technology is a prototype only, the goal is to demonstrate what’s possible and inspire video chat providers to adopt more inclusive technology.
Be an Advocate
There are plenty of other ways to advocate for people with autism, during World Autism Month and beyond. Autism Speaks’ Kindness Campaign encourages acceptance and inclusion with an interactive calendar featuring 30 daily acts of kindness.