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Autism, A Celebration

This blog post is by Katrina Mesina, a Chicagloand Walk and Events Coordinator. 

Often when one hears the word, “Celebrate,” happy thoughts come to mind. People often celebrate birthdays with parties and gifts, anniversaries with sweet dinner dates, straight A’s with monetary incentives, potty training with stickers and awards, and graduations with new cars or class rings. This year on World Autism Awareness Day, I saw posts on Facebook calling the community to celebrate autism. On Twitter, people wished each other, “Happy World Autism Awareness Day.” In a world where we are so careful about our language and the way we use it, I could not help but analyze the word celebrate in this context.

For some, autism is the source of pain and hardship; something to overcome and adapt to. For others, autism is what makes them unique; what makes them who they are. While I cannot speak for everyone, I would imagine that life does not treat those on the spectrum much differently than the rest of us. Every day comes with its ups and downs, joys and struggles. To me, autism is neither a blessing nor a curse, but it does make our families what they are. Could the phrase, “Celebrate autism,” be a mistake in verb usage? Understandably, some people may see it that way, but for me, celebrating World Autism Awareness Day means celebrating our loved ones on the spectrum and their families that support them every day.

In the weeks leading up to this year’s World Autism Awareness Day, the Chicagoland Chapter of Autism Speaks was bustling with phone calls. Volunteers were calling to ask where they could purchase blue light bulbs, Autism Speaks U chapters were working to host awareness events and change out light bulbs, and staff members were contriving different ways to turn the city blue.

Walk planning.

WAAD.

LIUB.

Third party events.

Committee meetings.

Lists.

Phone calls.

E-mails.

Maddness.

The months leading up the Walk and Autism Awareness Month are busy months. Now looking back (while still in the midst of it all), we sure had our hands full here in the Chicago office. Every year you hope for the same thing: To be better than the year before. A common goal is to reach more people and build upon prior success. What were we missing from years past and how could we fill that void?

During a call with our Walk marketing chairs, we brainstormed different ideas for guerrilla marketing strategies. Should we throw a bunch of puzzle pieces up in the air during rush hour? Host yet another flash mob? Paint our faces blue and scare everyone on public transit? We threw a lot of ideas out there, but the one that stuck was to Turn The Bean Blue. For those of you who are unaware, Chicago has an architectural structure in the middle of Millennium Park that is called, “The Bean.” It is made of reflective material, and often, visitors go to take pictures in it, look at it, and play around it. Our idea was that while we could not paint The Bean blue for World Autism Awareness Day, with enough people wearing blue, we could make it reflect the color and essentially…Turn The Bean Blue.

In the days following a Facebook post, we had more “likes” and “shares” than we were used to as well as an overwhelming amount of phone calls and e-mails. We were so excited that people were interested in joining us in our efforts. After all of that brainstorming and planning here we were again:

Phone calls.

E-mails.

Facebook messages.

Editing.

Planning.

Maddness.

And then April 2nd came along. About 80 people met me at The Bean that day, all dressed in blue. Fathers came with their sons. Boyfriends arrived to meet their girlfriends. Businessmen can down from their offices. Families met each other after a day’s work and all for one reason: To Celebrate World Autism Awareness Day.

I cannot express in words how amazing it was to see Chicago come together in this way. Children were dressed in the Autism Speaks cape, holding up lanterns, and waving around the foam puzzle pieces. One introduced himself to me as the President of Autism Speaks and grinned when I exclaimed that I was happy to work for him. Another adult living with autism chose this event as his celebration for his 22nd birthday. These pictures from the event capture the excitement and pride everyone felt in raising awareness and celebrating the day.

Phone calls.

Traffic.

Parking.

Public Transit.

Maddness.

 Even on the day of an event, a little bit of madness is normal. After fighting through the details, the work was worth the joy brought to every person present.  I hope that you all were able to enjoy your World Autism Awareness Days and share with the world what autism means to you. In my research, I looked up the word, “celebrate,” and found these definitions:

cel·e·brate

  /ˈsɛləˌbreɪt/ Show Spelled [sel-uh-breyt] Show IPA verb, -brat·ed, -brat·ing.

verb (used with object)

1. to observe (a day) or commemorate (an event) with ceremonies or festivities: to celebrate Christmas; to celebrate the success of a new play.

2. to make known publicly; proclaim: The newspaper celebrated the end of the war in red headlines.

3. to praise widely or to present to widespread and favorable public notice, as through newspapers or novels: a novel celebrating the joys of marriage; the countryside celebrated in the novels of Hardy.

 

I see our gathering at The Bean as fulfilling every one of these definitions and hope that it becomes an event in Chicago that grows from year to year. In the grand scheme of things, I hope that we all remember to celebrate our individuals and families affected by autism during Autism Awareness Month, but also, every day of the year. For all of the mothers, fathers, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, neighbors, friends, teachers, doctors, and everyone else, thank you all for what you do and for celebrating autism in your own way.

 

The birthday boy  and his family. Photo By Sandy Wettig

Chicago at The Bean. Photo By Doug White

 

One of our little heroes. Photo by Doug White