The professor of the health communications class where I am a teaching assistant is very adamant about “awareness” campaigns. He says that, sure, people can be aware of something, but we in public health are not here to make them aware. We’re here to make them act on whatever the media, the government, their friends, or others have made them aware of. After all, the big problems in public health are self-evident. We all know someone who has had their brush with obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, etc.
The thing that grinds my gears about the “Autism Awareness” campaigns is that very few of them actually call people to action in a meaningful way. At the school of public health, they are asking students to wear blue on April 2nd to commemorate “Autism Awareness Day,” then we’ll all go take a big picture together to show our awareness of autism.
Let me let you in on a fact: If you are a student of public health at the most prestigious school of public health in the world, and you are not aware of autism, then you’re in the wrong profession. Furthermore, if you are aware of autism and do nothing about it, then you’re even more in the wrong profession. And if you’re work is only about making people aware and not guiding them to do something about it, then your profession in public health is meaningless.
Harsh. I know.
Instead of awareness, and instead of asking us to wear blue, we should all be asked to do something to help autistics of every age be part of our society and part of our lives. We cannot continue to ignore them and send them away to treatment centers or mental health facilities. (Autism is not a mental health problem, by the way.) They are not “crazy,” or “retarded” or anything like that. Those are all epithets now, not adjectives.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe that most people who contribute to autism awareness campaigns mean well. Their heart is in the right place. However, it is through their actions that they must truly embrace — and help us all embrace — autistic people.
There was a time when I was aware of autism but didn’t think much of it. I too thought that autism was one of those things that existed and wasn’t a problem. Then I met some great people and stepped out of my comfort zone. I came to see how many autistic children and adults are denied meaningful, productive lives because they are seen as “gone” or “missing” or even “dead.” (This is something that really gets Mr. Gaines going over on The Poxes Blog, and I don’t blame him.) People with autism were no longer a mystery. They were not “them.”
From there, I stopped being aware and moved toward acting. We all should.
Then again, I could be wrong. There could be scores of public health students walking around and not aware that autism exists, or that autistic people exist (likely among their peers). I’m open to that… Yet to only work toward awareness and not action — meaningful action — is not really helpful, in my opinion.
For ideas on what to do to improve the lives of autistics, I recommend:
And please stay away from anyone advocating for autistics while claiming that vaccines cause autism. They’re in it for the anti-vaccine side, not the autism advocacy.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.