Lorri Unumb, vice president of state government affairs for Autism Speaks, travels the country advocating for families and individuals facing the challenges of autism. This is her ongoing series "On The Road For Autism Reform."
A dozen years ago, I did not know what autism was. My son with autism is 13 now and was diagnosed when he was nearly 2, so a dozen years ago I had only a passing familiarity with the word “autism,” not the deep, intense, all-consuming knowledge that permeates my every day now.
These days, many people who are not personally affected have much more than a passing familiarity with autism, due in large part to the concerted effort by the autism community to spread awareness. Although I once turned my nose up at organizations that spent their time and money merely generating awareness – “do something, don’t just talk about it,” I thought – I now value awareness of the disorder. The work that I do – passing legislation to require insurance coverage for autism treatments – is considerably easier when I’m working among legislators who are aware of autism and the impact it has on an individual and his or her family.
As such, I was so thrilled this weekend to see Head Coach Ruffin McNeill of East Carolina University wearing his Autism Speaks pin during the football game against Virginia Tech. The game was televised, there were many shots of Coach McNeill, and I just wonder how many conversations took place in family rooms around the country on Saturday as people noticed the pin. Some, no doubt, said:
“I wonder if Coach McNeill has a child with autism.”
Some probably said:
“Look at that pin he’s wearing; I wonder what that is.”
Others just commended him:
“How awesome that the coach is using his visibility to spread awareness for a good cause.”
Whatever the case, Coach Ruff got people talking. And that’s always a good thing.
I had the pleasure of meeting Coach Ruff at an event called “Coaches for Charity” in Raleigh over the summer. He was as friendly as could be and genuinely concerned for individuals struggling with autism. He pledged to wear his Autism Speaks pin for every game this season. Wow! On behalf of autism families everywhere, thank you, Coach Ruff! And go Pirates!