Today, April the 2nd, is World Autism Awareness Day. In fact, the entire month of April is designated as World Autism Awareness Month, aiming to help get people of all neurological builds to be aware of the developmental condition known as autism. It is thought to affect 1 in 68 people in the United States and 1 in 100 in the United Kingdom, where I’m based. So autism seems more common in the US than in the UK, and the reason it’s slightly less uncommon in the UK seems to be a mystery to me.
I live with autism myself. Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome (a similar condition) are often grouped together on a scale popularly called the ‘autism spectrum’. The autism I have is often termed as ‘high-functioning autism’, as many of my abilities are higher compared to people with severe autism, who often have great difficulty communicating properly and learn a lot slowly. However, many autistic people do not like this way of labelling autism based on abilities, as it can lead to unnecessary and unfair comparison of what one autistic person can do with what another cannot, which can then lead on to bullying and social ostracizing. Autism is a lifelong condition – it is not a disease and so cannot be cured. I get very sceptical whenever someone says that it can be cured.
Around the age of 2 (which is incidentally when I started drawing for the first time), my parents would notice that I would line up things such as video tapes and toys in a certain order, which is a common sign of autism and also possibly a connection with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). They also noticed that I wasn’t talking that much – I didn’t start making full sentences until I was about 4 or 5 – and that I was always engrossed in playing with my toys and games or watching TV. Often these would become the subjects of my obsessive thoughts – I remember I used to watch Numbertime and Disney’s Sing-Along Songs countless times, often destroying beds by excessive jumping from excitement in the process. (My sister Melissa was born in 1997, two years after me. If one child in a family has autism, there is a 15% chance of their siblings also having the condition, but Melissa does not have it while I do.) I distinctly remember waking up early one morning to play music at a loud volume on the stereo while my parents and Melissa were still asleep; somehow they didn’t hear it, as they may have been in a deep sleep.
At primary school, I learnt at a normal pace, although I would sometimes be distracted and try to draw (this sort of habit led me to create the Adventure Advanced Gang in 2005) in an attempt to stop stress getting the better of me. Sometimes I would torment other children in the playground (when usually it would be the other way around) to try to draw attention to myself, and this would sometimes re-emerge at home with me trying to make Melissa’s life a misery with me trailing her around all the time.
Moving to Colombia only worsened my erratic habits and behaviour – I actually started regressing in my education as the stress of moving to a new, unfamiliar place became too much for me to handle. So we moved back to England almost two years later, and the pain of re-adjusting to a new life in London continued into the first few months of secondary school, with me practically bringing down the school in fits of rage and uncontrollable stress. Luckily for both myself and my family, I eventually got my act together and started to improve my behaviour, working hard towards my GCSEs. It is during this time that I created some of my most successful series – Britain Boys, American Boys and finally Canadian Boys, which I’m still wildly working at today thanks to my passion of Canada which just keeps on growing.
Today, I’m at university hoping to graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in Digital Media this July, and of course still working at my creative talents on a regular basis. I always like to look at the positives of autism rather than the negatives (so in Inside Out, I’m more like Joy rather than Sadness), so having a strong passion for something – in this case, art and Canada – helps me focus on my long-term dreams of living in Canada and establishing my own animation studio, Surfing the Sea (which is why I’ve named my blog that), in the hopes of becoming the next Disney/Pixar or DreamWorks. I want to be the female Steve Jobs – a lifelong computer geek (I started using computers at the mere age of 5!) and a huge animation enthusiast!
So while autism of course has its challenges and can often take a very long time to be diagnosed (I was officially given my diagnosis of autism when I was 14, 12 years after I was first suspected to have it), people should also accept autism as a lifelong condition which cannot be cured, and appreciate the differences and talents those on the autism spectrum have. Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton, two famous scientists, are often thought to have had some form of autism due to their amazing genius, as are Bill Gates (the former boss of Microsoft and now a philanthropist) and even Steve Jobs to some extent. Boys are more likely than girls to have autism, but Temple Grandin (scientist and advocate for autism) and Jessica-Jane Applegate (Paralympic athlete who won a gold medal in swimming at the 2012 London Games) are two famous names who just so happen to be women living with autism or Asperger’s syndrome. As am I.
While it’s important that people should be aware of autism, they should also respect those who live on the spectrum and see the person before the disability. I therefore not only propose that April should be World Autism Awareness Month, but also World Autism Acceptance Month – and every day, not just the 2nd of April, should be a World Autism Awareness & Acceptance Day.