Just as the month of October is dedicated to bringing awareness to diseases such as breast cancer and Down syndrome, April brings attention to autism, “a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences.” In 2015, research concluded that every 1 in 68 children are diagnosed with autism, which increased from a 2013 study in which every 1 in 88 children were diagnosed with autism. For this reason, non-profit organizations such as Autism Speaks, The Autism Society and The Autism Research Foundation, and the millions of families affected are dedicated to spreading awareness.
Autism has a wide spectrum in terms of the intensity of the challenges endured by those diagnosed. One with autism on the higher end of the spectrum faces more challenges in daily activity, while one who does not face as many mental challenges would be viewed as on the lower end of the spectrum. Nonetheless, the evident disadvantages endured by people with autism on any end of the spectrum has prompted many to help spread awareness and educate others on the topic.
Junior Gabriela Coutinho has dedicated herself to promoting awareness about autism as her brother, Miguel Coutinho, was diagnosed when he was four years old. “Because I was born when he was six years old,” Gabriela said, “I did not experience the shift in family dynamic but feel there is much more stress with simple daily functions. While I know it was initially difficult for my parents to hear that their firstborn son had a severe disability, and we still worry about his future, he has also given us a greater, more appreciative perspective of life and the meaning of unconditional love.”
Unfortunately, Miguel is “on the severe end of the spectrum” and has experienced difficulty throughout his twenty-two years due to the impacts he has endured his entire life. “He cannot read or write and has never spoken; he is cognitively like a two-year-old and goes to a special school where they teach him basic daily tasks,” Coutinho said. Miguel enjoys watching Elmo, Barney, and videos of him and Gabriela as children. He is also fond of playing with feathers, soap bubbles, light-up toys, and going to the beach and pool.
In light of it all, the impacts of autism have not been able to break apart the special bond the Coutino siblings share. “We love each other so much,” Coutinho said. “Although he cannot speak, he communicates so genuinely with his smiles and gentle gestures. We have a profound, intuitive relationship and care about each other unconditionally. He is so sweet, funny, and purely himself – an inherently good person. I am extremely proud to be his sister.”
Understanding the setbacks Miguel and others with severe autism has been and will be forced to experience in future, the Coutinho family has consistently worked to spread awareness about autism and has become involved in fundraisers supporting special schools for these individuals in South Florida.
There are common misconceptions regarding the true impacts of autism. Some believe that people with autism are unable to feel or understand emotions; however, this is not the case. These unfair judgements are merely fallacies that only add to the setbacks individuals with autism are already forced to tolerate and encourage activists to set the record straight. “I want others to know that people with autism and any intellectual/developmental disabilities feel when they are being judged through words, actions, or even just stares,” Coutinho said. “It is incredibly hurtful and difficult to live constantly discriminated by a global society.”
Once these young adults with autism enter the real world, some potential employers hold these inaccurate impressions of them and tend to stray away from hiring them. This creates an infrequent hiring of autistic adults despite the fact that many are able to be highly serviceable to the workforce. However, with growing awareness and knowledge, companies such as Microsoft are providing job opportunities to these individuals. “Microsoft is stronger when we expand opportunity, and we have a diverse workforce that represents our customers,” Mary Ellen Smith, corporate vice president of worldwide operations wrote in a company blog post. “We believe there is a lot of untapped potential in the marketplace, and we are encouraged by the strong level of readiness from the vendors who cater to this segment.”
Donating to foundations supporting the continuous research and promotion of awareness of autism is a simple way to get involved. Finding fundraiser walks centered around autism is also an easy way to help out. However, becoming educated about the true effects of autism on not only the diagnosed, but the families as well is pivotal in being able to provide the necessary care for the autism community as a whole. Regardless, the Coutinho family will continue to strive for the best possible life they can offer to Miguel and those affected. “I work for and dream of more awareness and empathy toward people who have disabilities,” Coutinho said, “hoping others can comprehend how some people’s greatest wishes are simply to be seen as human and greeted like any other with a smile.”