Advocacy: What April means to me

Last week you may have noticed your peers wearing more blue than usual or saw pictures of famous landmarks lit up in blue all over the Internet. For those of you who didn’t already know, April is Autism Awareness Month. Autism Awareness Day is an international holiday that takes place every April 2. But as someone who’s grown up around people all over the autism spectrum, I think not nearly enough is done in the month of April.

My twin brother, Braden, was diagnosed with autism when we were 3 years old. Growing up, it didn’t take me too long to notice that something was different about him. I developed social skills much faster than he did, and he needed more help than I did with classwork. I knew he had autism, but to know what that really meant took longer to understand.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is defined by the Center for Disease Control as “a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.” It’s important to remember that there isn’t necessarily an “average case of autism” because it’s a wide and diverse spectrum. I know some individuals on the spectrum who are pulling above a 4.0 in college. They’re able to drive themselves, hold a job and live away from home. I also know people who are nonverbal and quadriplegic who need a lot more assistance in life. My brother falls somewhere toward the middle.

Today, Braden has grown from a scrawny, quirky kid to a lanky adult whose interests range from airports to hockey to children’s cartoons. He’s very stubborn and can be demanding at times. But he’s also the kind of person who always will bring you back a souvenir from a trip because he doesn’t want you to feel left out.

He takes care of our little sister and regularly checks in with our grandparents to make sure they’re doing OK. He’s just started an internship at an elderly home that is hopefully going to lead to his first job. I couldn’t be more proud of how much he’s progressed over the years. Part of growing up with a sibling on the spectrum is not knowing what he’ll be capable of in the future. It’s still a mystery. Will he be able to live on his own, hold a job, go to college or get a driver’s license? We don’t know yet. But the future is looking pretty bright for him at the moment, and the education he’s received is a major reason why.

Oakstone Academy is a preschool through grade 12 school that specializes in special education. My brother started there in preschool, with me at his side as a “peer mentor student” until we were in sixth grade. With lots of help from his teachers and aides, other peer mentors and of course, his family, Braden was able to graduate with a high school diploma last May. He not only learned standard things, subjects like calculus and history, but things that many of us don’t even have to think about.

Part of the reason he was able to attend Oakstone is because, when we were younger, our parents, alongside many others, lobbied for the implementation of the Ohio Autism Scholarship Program. This provides eligible children with up to $27,000 in scholarships for education. Last school year, more than 3,600 people used that money to unlock educational opportunities.

 That’s what April should be about. It’s one thing to wear a blue shirt to show you’re an ally, which is great, but it doesn’t really accomplish anything. What we should be doing is advocating for change to help provide for this population who needs us. They deserve a quality education and a quality life.

Autism Awareness Month should become Autism Advocacy Month, and it shouldn’t be limited to just one month. After all, those on the spectrum have to live with it 365 days of the year.

There are things we can all do, besides wearing blue, to support these people and their families. First, support programs and initiatives that help them to gain better access to things like health care, education and resources. Second, support one of the many organizations like the Autism Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) or your local chapter of the Autism Society of America. These organizations focus on supporting families and individuals affected by autism and advocate for legislation for the betterment of those on the spectrum.

I’ve grown up learning to be an advocate for my brother, but this month I hope to support more than just him. I hope to encourage others to support this cause to help as many people as possible. Even if it’s something that seems small, like donating to educational programs, it can make a world of difference to someone else.

Devon Baird is a staff writer for the Newswire. She is pictured here with her twin brother, Braden.