Looking back onto my childhood, I was feisty, fiercely independent, and boldly outspoken in a deep voice that entirely mismatched my curly haired, dress-wearing façade. There are plenty of stories of little Madeline debating life’s great injustices, like the monstrosity of having to wait for a coffee cake delivery (instead of going to pick it up) or being cruelly denied the right to a pet dog (with an allergic brother).
However, none stand out more than the stories that detail my heroic leaps to defend my family.
Picture: a diapered 1 year old, holding onto the side of a plastic pool for support, waddles over and removes one balancing arm to push in a 3-year-old boy who wouldn’t stop splashing her sister. A pixie of a 7-year-old, holding a 9 year old boy by the shirt, a foot taller, and telling him she’s had it with him teasing her cousin.
Now picture: a 20 year old, looking at an Instagram comment in which a boy has tagged other friends to laugh at his joke made at the expense of her brother – and she can’t do anything.
My brother, 18 years old, has Aspergers. Growing up alongside him has been challenging, frustrating, and testing, but more than anything – it has been rewarding. It has given me a softer edge to my sharpness, a side that can hit the brakes on judgement and throw up a stop sign on argument. A side that, when tempted to exclude or judge, asks the truly important question: for what reward? What will I gain that is worth more than the loss this person will feel and remember from my actions? My experience has not made me perfect, but it has made me aware, and that is the first step for every one of us.
Awareness is why I joined the American Autism Association team, because awareness can change one person’s language, one choice to leave a disheartening comment, one decision to exclude, or one hurtful expression of frustration that comes from a place of misunderstanding. Awareness is not only about stopping negativity towards members of the autism community, but also promoting actively helping the community. Something as simple as greater patience and an openness towards an individual we may not understand can make a world of difference.
Social media is at the heart of many forms of misguided negativity, but it can also be a platform of change. I can’t push a high school boy I’ve never met into a pool, or grab him by the shirt and ask him if he really needs to be so mean. What I can do is create content that shines a spotlight on those who make positive choices – those whose actions actually deserve a share with a friend, and bring the right kind of smile to your face. I can spread information and knowledge about autism that leaves no room for excuses or continued negativity. I can attempt to open minds, open hearts, and most importantly, open conversation about autism, and how to create a better and more beautiful autism-friendly society. I can take steps towards making this world a more accepting and understanding place for the autism community, and for my brother.