What Is Autism Awareness Day, Week, and Month?

The Macau Tower is lit up blue for Autism Awareness and Autism Speaks on April 2, 2014 in Macau
The Macau Tower was lit up blue for Autism Awareness in 2014. Callaghan Walsh/Getty Images

Autism Awareness Day, Week, and Month are all recognized during the month of April. Around the world, events and publicity are planned to draw attention to and raise funds for autism. 

The concept of Autism Awareness is by no means new: it was first promoted by the Autism Society of America over 25 years ago by autism pioneer Bernard Rimland and his then small, poorly funded organization. The Autism Society continues to promote autism awareness and inclusion through events largely run through its many chapters; here's how they describe their philosophy for 2015:

Nearly a quarter century ago, the Autism Society launched a nationwide effort to promote autism awareness, inclusion and self-determination for all, and assure that each person with ASD is provided the opportunity to achieve the highest possible quality of life. This year we want to go beyond simply promoting autism awareness to encouraging friends and collaborators to become partners in movement toward acceptance and appreciation.

Let’s embrace a new perspective. For 50 years we have worked in communities (both large and small) to ensure our actions, through our services and programming, supported all individuals living with autism. Let’s expand this work to focus on the rest of us – ensuring acceptance and inclusion in schools and communities that results in true appreciation of the unique aspects of all people. We want to get one step closer to a society where those with ASDs are truly valued for their unique talents and gifts.

All this may sound quite low key – unlikely to create international interest and furor. And it is. But during the late 2000's, an organization called Autism Speaks got involved, and everything changed.

Autism Speaks is owned and run by a "power couple," Bob and Suzanne Wright, who have contacts and money to spare.

  Rather than pushing forward a community agenda, they took Autism Awareness to a whole new level, on the national and international stage. The Wrights have addressed Congress and the United Nations, rung the opening bell on Wall Street, and put together huge, star-studded celebrity fundraising events. They have also created a level of controversy within the autism community that can hardly be exaggerated.

In 2008, largely through the efforts of Autism Speaks, a World Autism Awareness Day was founded (on April 2). World Autism Day was designation by the United Nations in 2007, and is celebrated through events ranging from marches to lectures to children's programs to special events in many nations around the world.

In 2009, Autism Speaks organized an awareness event in New York which had the effect of creating a significant rift in the autism community. Members of the group left 150 strollers in Central Park, New York, to symbolize the 1:150 children affected by autism (the number is now 1:68).

The symbolism – that autism was "stealing" children and leaving soulless shells behind – was infuriating to thousands of adults with autism and parents. Over the years, similar campaigns have reached millions with the same very controversial message.

In 2010, Autism Speaks launched a recognition of a new Autism Awareness Day (April 2), which they termed "Light it Up Blue."  Through their efforts, major landmarks around the world were literally covered in blue lights.  From the Empire State Building to Trafalgar Square to China, buildings and monuments are lit in blue, while supporters wear blue clothing and pins to show support.

World Autism Week, also in early April, is run by the National Autistic Society in the UK.  As in the US, the UK event includes walks, children's programs, and more.  It also incorporates "Onesie Wednesday," a day to dress up in "onesies" or pajamas for the day to "show they are not afraid to stand out for autism!"

Autism Awareness continues to be a major international happening – but its controversial nature has, if anything, increased. On the one hand, are those families who are overwhelmed by autism and eager to see it eradicated; on the other hand, are autism advocates who work toward acceptance and inclusion. While these two perspectives are not necessarily mutually exclusive, they make "autism awareness" a tricky business.

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