April is Autism Awareness Month and although many of us will post pictures or sayings on Facebook and Twitter about Autism, I wanted to focus on what awareness means to me as a Mom.

We are all aware that autism is out there and yes it affects 1 in 88 children and yes it doesn’t mean someone is retarded or stupid or just plain bad. Some might even put a little money towards the cause because that helps with “research” and “awareness”.

Maybe it is easier to join the “awareness” movement than to invite that socially awkward kid to a birthday party. Or suffer through a play date with your son’s classmate that has outbursts and holds his ears. The one who doesn’t eat dairy or gluten? (“What the hell does that kid eat?”).

Are you aware that when you ask that Mom over for a play date that she might start to cry? Not because she is unstable but because you are the first parent who has spoken to her without asking, “what is wrong with your son?” and the first who has invited him to an activity that most take for granted. Don’t worry you don’t have to be aware of all of the things that go into a play date. You just have to show up. Her whole life has been aware (story boards, dry runs, dress rehearsals, SLP, OT, PT) for every single social interaction from mealtime to first day of school to kinder soccer. She is prepared. She has Plan A through Z and all the aides and food and clothing it may require. I was that mom whose child didn’t get invited for a play date or to a party for 2 years. I was that mom who had plans and pictures and strategies just to get through a simple day. I was the mom who cried over the exclusion. And even though my son might not have always been aware, I was. His teachers were. His brother was. We were too aware.

My hope is that your children grow up as mine have. Aware. Aware that loud doesn’t always mean bad. That emotion is something that isn’t always controlled. Aware that social interaction is sometimes too stressful for words and requires total retreat; that some kids don’t know how to make friends so you have to just be a friend first. Aware that those kids want to be loved and accepted for the beautiful extraordinary people they are.

So be aware of that kid in your child’s class. Don’t ignore him because you don’t know what to say. Smile and imagine and be aware of just how hard a day at school must be for someone who doesn’t like sounds or faces or social interactions. Have a soft spot for them showing up every day just to be included. Maybe have the birthday party that has a melt down every now and again. Or the unpredictable play date. Your beautiful extraordinary child will grow up to be more empathetic, more understanding, more patient, more tolerant, and more aware. That is the gift for all of us: awareness.

Dr. Laura Lee McFadden has been a physician for 20 years and a Mom on the Spectrum for 7 years. She learned nothing about Autism in medical school and everything through her son.

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