For most people, autism is a term they associate with the unknown.
It can scare them and their reactions, when seeing a child in public with various forms of autism, often creates situations which are not helpful either for the child or for themselves.
People around kids with autism generally do not know how to react or respond simply because they have little, if any information on how to do so.
That is the problem – educating the public to be sensitive to the fact that autism is a spectrum disorder and affects children in any number of ways. And, educating them to be kinder and not fearful.
The good news is that one mom is on a quest, working to advocate for kids with autism and help to educate the public about this condition.
During her recent talk for Story District, Whitney Ellenby set the scene for the audience: a frustrated, madly in love, lonely, brave mother decides she is going to stop hiding and take her severely autistic son out into the world, and they are going to have fun together.
What could go wrong?
As soon as they arrive at the waterpark, Whitney’s son, Zack, hones in on the largest and loopiest enclosed waterslide there is and is absolutely determined that he is going to ride down its rapids.
Whitney tries to point him in the direction of other more sensory-friendly attractions, but Zack is insistent. They wait in a long line and as they get closer to the top, Zack begins to get nervous… and so does Whitney. Zack bounces and flaps and makes loud sounds.
The people around them point, stare, and some ask loudly “what’s wrong with him?” Whitney faces the winding line of strangers and announces that her son has autism.
She is ready to escort him back down to solid ground, but one man offers, “I’ll ride with him.”
When it’s go-time, Zack and this man take off down the slide while Whitney anxiously runs to greet them at the bottom. Zack emerges… victorious.
You see, when it comes to families living with autism, one understanding stranger can make all the difference.
These families are used to the pointing and the comments and being escorted out of public places when their autistic child’s senses get overloaded and fear takes over.
They are also used to being judged for everything from attempting to take their children out into the world, to how they care for their child, to how they cope with the hand has been dealt to them. And make no mistake: they adore their kid and would do anything for them.
Take another example: Whitney’s recent op-ed in The Washington Post advocating for sensory-friendly opportunities for her son.
There are a few hundred comments on the piece, many of them bitterly attacking and shaming Whitney for daring to suggest that sensory-friendly events might be a win-win for all.
So what’s a parent of a child with autism to do?
Whitney continues to tirelessly advocate for her son and for other parents in the trenches. She desperately wishes for the world to put down their pointer finger, set down the keyboard, and listen to what these families really need: support, inclusion, understanding.
Whitney’s book, Autism Uncensored: Pulling Back the Curtain is one of the best ways to help understand autism and the things you can do when you meet a child with autism.
Whitney Ellenby is a former US Department of Justice, Disability Rights attorney and proud parent of a son with Autism.
She is the founder of “Autism Ambassadors,” a charitable venture which provides recreational events for over 600 families in Maryland and surrounding areas, including a Sensory-Friendly showing of the world-famous “Gazillion Bubbles Show.”
She and her “Ambassador events” have been featured in local t.v. news, the Washington Post, the Bethesda Gazette and Bethesda Magazine.
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