Why We Need Autism Awareness Month

No one has been able to avoid the fact that April is Autism Awareness Month. This is true worldwide, as well-known celebrities and organizations show ...

Apr 11, 2015

No one has been able to avoid the fact that April is Autism Awareness Month. This is true worldwide, as well-known celebrities and organizations show their support for the cause. Often, this comes in the form of a speech, a donation or a growing presence of the color blue. The omnipresence of Autism Awareness Month extends to our campus. Reminders that it is and will continue to be Autism Awareness Month range from near-constant posts on the Student Portal to the blue filters over the campus’ main lights. Throughout the month, there have been initiatives to get students engaged with the community touched by Autism Spectrum Disorder in Abu Dhabi. As part of the team designing NYU Abu Dhabi’s Autism Education Month, I can tell you that the inescapable presence of awareness is intentional. Visible even from the highway as someone heads towards Saadiyat, it’s clear that NYUAD is making some statement about autism. The logical follow-up question seems to be, is making a statement enough?
The backlash against Autism Awareness Month is not new and, in many respects, nothing special in light of the criticism that many awareness campaigns receive. The go-to argument from bashers of awareness efforts is an attack on their very definition. Awareness is a vague, intangible concept which sits somewhere between revelation and education. Many use its ambiguous nature to find fault with awareness initiatives, saying that raising awareness offers organizations positive attention without providing any services to help those affected by the problem at hand. Awareness is likened to the lazy man’s social activism. Furthermore, it is commonly said that awareness campaigns can actually be detrimental to a cause because they lead people to participate in an awareness-raising activity, say, wearing blue for a day, and feel that they’ve played their part. This is a common criticism of Autism Speaks, the most prominent organization dedicated to autism awareness and the leader of the global Light it Up Blue campaign.
My goal is not to defend Autism Speaks, an organization that promotes a wide range of beliefs about autism spectrum disorder, some of which I do endorse, some of which I do not endorse. Neither is my goal to tell you about autism or its perception in the UAE, though freshman Siba Siddique’s article is definitely worth a read on that topic. I am simply arguing for the sake of awareness campaigns worldwide.
I believe that, rather than belittling the building of awareness because of its vague nature, we should appreciate that the strength of awareness lies in its dynamism. Awareness campaigns come in many forms, and it is true that some may stop at simply getting the name of the cause into the public and encouraging conversation on it. Even in this case, awareness efforts are worthwhile. If a thousand people are exposed to a cause and only 20 are really moved by what they learn, that small population of motivated individuals turns into a group of powerful allies. They can enact incredible changes that they never would have been motivated to make without initial exposure, even if their exposure was spurred by simply wondering why everyone has been wearing blue lately. Alternatively, those touched by awareness campaigns may change their mindset about a cause or take up a volunteer job. There is value added to the community and no harm done.
Beyond simply increasing public exposure to a cause, it is worth noting that awareness campaigns don’t usually stop at the superficial, such as telling people to wear this color or use that hashtag. These are just the methods employed to get people excited about the cause, push them to dig deeper and sustain engagement with it for a longer amount of time. Awareness campaigns do not, however, ignore the educational aspect of their definition. In fact, they tend to enhance their awareness-raising activities with key information about the cause and how to contribute. For our on-campus celebration of World Autism Awareness Day, we had snacks and small gifts to get people to attend the event, but there was no way we’d let them leave without pushing information on Autism Spectrum Disorder and ways to volunteer on them.
Awareness campaigns are carried out by people who really care about the cause, who want to make a tangible difference in society. For this reason, awareness campaigns are usually accompanied by initiatives to make an active difference in the community. Throughout April, there have been rife examples of resources being offered around the globe to populations affected by autism. These range from seminars and workshops for parents to autism-friendly plays for children. These types of initiatives increase in quantity each year as awareness of autism rises. Hyatt Capital Gate hotel was the first building to turn blue for Autism Awareness Month in Abu Dhabi. Hyatt also has a month of activities designed to benefit the populations most affected by autism in the UAE, children and parents, some with NYUAD students as volunteers. On campus, it was exciting to turn the lights blue and fun to hand out awareness bands, but these acts’ main purpose was to create a starting point, giving context to value-driven events throughout the month like conferences and talks.
As someone whose volunteer, internship, academic major and potential career path have been motivated by what I’ve learned from awareness campaigns, I cannot thank the global push for awareness enough. I feel compelled, then, to defend the commonly criticized efforts that I believe offer an immense amount of value to a community and a basis for which many causes gain their potential to progress. Many awareness campaigns go far beyond awareness by trying to change circumstances for the population for which they advocate. Even when awareness stops at education, this exposure can offer individuals a chance to take matters into their own hands. While awareness efforts can appear shallow at first, we must remember not to judge a campaign by its color.
Hannah Taylor is deputy features editor. Email her at
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