On becoming aware

I grew up in the country.  I went to a rural school that was very small.  We had an average of 12 kids per grade at that time.  I didn’t see a lot of “difference” in the kids I grew up with. For the most part we all looked the same, dressed the same and behaved the same (at least in school). 

But there was one kid that was different.  He was what, at the time, we called a “problem child”.  I remember the term hyperactive being used. He was a bright kid but was frequently in trouble for misbehaving.  And he was treated differently. I don’t specifically recall anyone being mean to him (although I’m willing to bet it happened) but he just wasn’t really part of our group.

On my 9th birthday I have a party.  This was a HUGE event for me.  Living on a farm, having a birthday party with all my friends just didn’t happen very often.  I was so excited.  And then my mother told me I had to give an invitation to Ricky. I couldn’t believe it. He wasn’t my friend.  Why did I have to invite him?  He wasn’t even in my grade! My mother told me, quite simply, that we were inviting him and that was that. End of story.

So my big day came.  There was cake and presents and all of my friends.  And there was Ricky. It turned out it wasn’t the end of the world having Ricky there. If anyone asked I just sighed and said my mom made me invite him.  They got it. And I started to get it too.  The Ricky I saw that day was different.  He was just a little more confident, just a tiny bit more outgoing. He was part of the group. It was still difficult for him to look you in the eye and he kept to himself more than the other kids but I do remember seeing him smile and that wasn’t something you saw too often.

That day, my 9th birthday party, is etched in my mind forever.  I don’t know what Ricky’s diagnosis was. I know that he had medication and that sometimes he took it and sometimes he didn’t.  You could tell when he did, he would be even more withdrawn and sullen.  Keep in mind this was over 30 years ago. Different medications, different tools for diagnosis and different (less) resources for kids and parents.  Ricky and his mom moved away soon after my birthday. I don’t know where they went and I never saw him again. But I will never forget him. Not because we were best friends or spent much time together. But because he made me “aware”. Aware that different doesn’t equal bad, that different is, well, just different.

April is Autism Awareness month.  Autism affects 1 in 68 children today.  That’s a pretty big number. And it keeps growing – just 12 years ago that number was 1 in 150. Of course some of this rise in numbers has to do with better screening tools and parent’s and medical professionals catching symptoms sooner and more often than in the past, but either way Autism is now touching the lives of many.


A little about Autism

Autism and Autism Spectrum Disorder are terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development.  They are characterized by social impairments, difficulties with communications and stereotyped patterns of behaviour.

The cause or causes of autism aren’t completely understood.  It seems that both genetics and environmental factors can play a role.  There is no cure for Autism but there are treatments that can help specific symptoms.  Most of these treatments involve therapy and studies confirm that early diagnosis and intervention can make a significant difference for many kids with Autism.

There are many, many resources out there if you are looking for more information about Autism and/or Autism Spectrum Disorder.  Autism Speaks is a great resource if you would like to find some more information.


Teaching awareness

30 some years after that pivotal birthday party moment I am now the mother of a four year old girl. Every single day I think about how we are going to raise our daughter to be a caring, compassionate member of society.  How are we going to teach her that different isn’t bad, and that in fact, different can be beautiful?  We want her to learn this not just so she treats others with love and acceptance but so she grows up comfortable in her own skin.  We want her to not only believe different is ok but to celebrate the things that make her, and everybody else, different.

Our daughter has anxiety and we have no idea how that might change over time. Right now it’s  manageable.  It can be frustrating and stressful, but not too debilitating.  How will it be in five years from now?  In ten? We have no idea.  All I know for sure is that we will give her, and ourselves, every tool we can to help. Will she be the kid at nine years old that we once would have labelled a “problem child”? The one nobody wants to invite to their birthday party? 

It can be tough being a kid.  Kids can be mean. Even kids that aren’t mean can be mean.  When you’re a kid, even the smallest thing can be huge.  A comment taken the wrong way, a look misread.  These kinds of things can knock down even the most confident kid.  Everyone wants to be accepted.  And almost everyone feels different, whether others see them that way or not.

Teaching awareness is twofold. We have to teach our kids self-awareness, to know yourself and to love that self; and how to be aware of others – how they feel, what they need. It’s not about teaching them clinical words or statistics.  Honestly, 1 in 68 means nothing to a four year old. But being kind and caring about others, now that means something to her.  So, green, blue, red or purple – whatever your color – light it up!


Author: Shayna Murray

Blog: Mommy Outside the Box