Why I have mixed feelings about Autism Awareness Day 

Feeling Blue

If you were out and about last Tuesday night, you might have seen one of several Charleston area landmarks lit up in blue light. You might have asked another passerby, "What's going on?" and they might have known to tell you that these sites — like the Dock Street Theatre, the Old Exchange Building, and the USS Yorktown — were participating in the "Light It Up Blue" campaign for World Autism Awareness Day.

Autism, and the related autism spectrum disorder, are "general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development," according to Autism Speaks, and these disorders disproportionately strike males. Often, they are not spotted until the child turns two or three. Several theories exist as to the causes of autism and why the occurrence of autistic disorders appears to be on the rise over the last decade. The important thing, of course, is that we raise awareness of the issue.

Of course, autism awareness is also an incredibly easy cause to get behind, and being "aware" of the problem takes pretty much no effort on anyone's part. It doesn't require anyone to challenge their own moral, social, political, or economic beliefs to say that they support autism awareness. Autism ranks up there with child abuse, cancer, rape, or poverty on the scale of things that we should not have to say we are against because, you know, no one is for them.

Yet, out of all of those things, it seems that poverty is the only one that does not have a series of glitzy websites, 5K runs, and "light it up" events planned this year — or any year, for that matter. This is probably because it is the exact opposite of a cause like autism awareness in that it requires you to seriously examine your own moral, social, political, and economic beliefs. It also requires you to be aware of something far more prevalent than childhood autism.

According to Autism Speaks, the disorder affects 1 in every 88 children. That's about 1.1 percent. On the other hand, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University, 22 percent of American children live in families that are at or below the federal poverty line, and 45 percent are in low-income families. I am not in any way trying to demean or belittle the experiences of families with autistic children, by the way. I simply wish to explore how a statistically niche cause can garner such great international support. (The head of Autism Speaks was on MSNBC's Morning Joe last Wednesday, claiming that they had lit up buildings in "about half" of the countries of the world the day before.)

Part of the reason is that autism can happen in almost any neighborhood. Strangely, though, it seems more prevalent in wealthier families, although this is typically seen only in this country. Other countries with better healthcare do not see a class-based tilt in autism numbers. So, like many "awareness" issues, autism is an issue of which a particular community is, in fact, already aware.

Poverty, on the other hand, is something that happens out of sight and mind. Many of you can probably name a neighbor's cousin's sister who has a child with Asperger's, but how many of you know someone whose family is not certain where their next meal will come from? (That would be one in seven American households, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.) Society systemically divides the rich from the poor in ways that are almost invisible to most people. If you need examples of this, please go spend an hour in Walmart or Goodwill. If you need more, have dinner at a "budget" restaurant, instead of your favorite downtown hot spot. Real awareness happens when you step outside of your comfort zone.

Of course, there is also the fact that autism is something for which awareness is simply enough. There's no real cause to fight because, again, it is not as if there is anyone out there championing it. You merely have to wear the ribbon, put the bumper sticker on your car, and send in a donation. It does not require you to think too hard about your life in relation to other people.

Poverty, however, does. Sure, in the abstract everyone knows about it — and of course there are not many people who champion it (at least, not openly). Yet, champion it they do, in the form of supporting for-profit healthcare and food production, and in demanding "austerity" cuts to public services and reducing the tax burdens of the wealthy while expanding the tax burden of the poor and middle class.

Challenging these ideas requires more than mere awareness. It requires you to think hard about every area of your life — from where you work to where you shop to what you eat. And that might be too much awareness for most people to handle.


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