By Stephanie Rollins, a mom from Lakeland, Florida
I attended the kick-off rally for the final campaign tour of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan after the Republican Convention in Tampa. This was my first opportunity to attend a political rally as well as represent a cause I hold so dear -- autism. It was exciting to be there. To spread the word that AUTISM is not a party idea, it’s a way of life for many families. I just couldn’t wait anymore. Our 1 in 88 can’t wait. It’s time for our candidates to fully acknowledge our community.
But first, they have to see and hear us.
The night before, my husband and I stayed up until 1 am spray-painting white T-shirts with our message-My 1 in 88 can’t wait. Signs are typically not allowed at these events, but we were determined to be seen and heard.
Lessons learned from this exercise?
- Spray paint doesn’t dry in six hours
- Paint the front AND back of your shirt since the cameras shoot from behind
- If the paint is still wet, wear them anyway
Upon arrival, I was glad I decided not to bring my seven-year-old, Samuel. There was sensory OVERLOAD and God help you if you are claustrophobic. My friend and I arrived at 8 am for the 10:30 am speech. Security at the event was tight. Purses were allowed, but no bags. One lone heckler was ushered out. People from the community showed up in DROVES. We passed shirts to the crowd and all but one kept them.
After some initial scouting, we determined the BEST place to be was right by the media corral. We were pressed against their barricades for the whole speech. As people entered the event space, my friend would point to me saying, "Hey! Ask my friend about her shirt!" Doors to speak to media swung open. We ended up on NPR and Univision and had one interview with the AP!
Imagine what impact we could have as a community if people all over our country were present at every public event like this?
Toward the end, as people were leaving, we didn’t. We stayed behind, giving us a better opportunity to speak to the media. It also made us more visible, particularly in our homemade shirts complete with that sticky red paint!
Since the crowd had thinned, we used that chance to slide into an open spot at the front of the stage - positioned front and center when the candidates and their families came back for the final farewell. I actually made eye contact with Janna Ryan (Paul Ryan’s wife). I pointed to my shirt. She said "I see you!", giving me a thumbs up back. I actually teared up behind my sunglasses. It really means something when you know that you have finally been “seen.” That your efforts were rewarded with that acknowledgment.
Keep. It. Simple!
Our aim was not only to educate the candidates, but the public on the importance of autism issues. Our message was simple. Regardless of which candidate is elected on November 6, autism is non-partisan. We want all candidates to know that families affected by autism VOTE.
If you get the chance to speak to a reporter, be prepared. Understand why autism is an important political issue today. Read this blog.
Gimmicks work! Here are some tips:
USE SHORT PHRASES
Opportunities to speak with the press are not therapy sessions. Use short soundbites to get your message across. Think of phrases on the way to the event.
GET CAUGHT ON CAMERA
If you want to get on TV, bring a baby. They scouted the crowd for people with babies. They also scouted the crowd for minorities, as well as women, because the women’s vote is a hot button in this race. Moms, read that last sentence again!
DON’T RUN “ON LATE”
Get there early
USE STRATEGIC POSITIONING
Stand by media corral. Or arrive early and get the front row. These are the only two places that matter, since the cameras will not get your T-shirt if you are lost in the crowd. The front row allows visual contact with the candidates.
DON’T BE SHY
Stand out! Next time, I am painting an autism speaks puzzle piece on my cheek a la Tim Tebow.
STAY PUT AFTERWARDS
Don't leave with the herd. Opportunities open as people clear out.
MOST OF ALL, MAKE THE EFFORT
It is definitely worth your time to appear at one of these events-you never know when a door will open and YOU may be the person who makes autism a speaking point for this race.
The candidates are largely campaigning in the battleground states with less than a month to go until November 6. If you live in one of these states, keep your ear to the ground for appearances. Prepare now, ask your friends to be on standby to help, then move when you get notice.
Our 1 in 88 can’t wait. They can’t wait on you and they can’t wait on our leaders to come around. We must act. We must demand the attention that people with autism in this country deserve after being disregarded for so long. We must affect the change we want to see for our children.