That was the message from Kareena Zanolli to the students of St. Patrick’s School on Wednesday, April 2, also known as World Autism Awareness Day. Zanolli was on hand to give a discussion on what autism looks like and what it means to be autistic.
She also taught the students some ways they can help to better include her son, and all autistic people, in their everyday lives.
If anyone knows about whether autism is scary or not, it’s Zanolli. She’s the head of the Chinook Autism Society based out of Lethbridge. Her five-year-old son, Gavin, has autism and attends Kindergarten at St. Patrick’s School. She said while people have an idea about what autism is, they don’t always know what it means to be autistic.
“Most people tend to be aware of autism,” she said, adding the goal for awareness supporters is to “make them understand and accept those living with autism a little better.”
To that end, Zanolli said the concentration this year has been more about what people with autism are good at and what the possibilities are for them rather than focusing on the negative aspects of the disorder.
“For our family in particular, autism has changed the way we look at life,” said Zanolli. “It has made us much more appreciative of the unique gifts everybody possesses. We cherish the little things and the special moments, and by no means look at having a child with autism as a burden.”
Zanolli pointed to the process of discovery parents of newly diagnosed children with autism go through as an example of the focus on the negative aspects of the disorder looked at by society.
“When your child is diagnosed with autism, the first words you hear tend to all be the same thing,” she said. “All the things they’re not going to be able to do, or can’t do, about how difficult their life is going to be and your life is going to be.”
Technically speaking, autism is a neural development disorder. People with autism can have impaired social interaction. They can have issues with communication or repetitive or stereotypy behaviour. Their brains process information in ways most people could only imagine.
Living with any disability can be tough at times. Not just for those who have the disability themselves, but for their families as well. Having an autistic child in the house undoubtedly has its own unique challenges. But Zanolli wants people to know it isn’t all about the struggle. There’s also a place to look out at the world from that few enough people get to see.
“As much as there are challenges, it’s something I wouldn’t change,” she said. “It has provided me with a love and an understanding I wish everybody knew.”
Like any parent, Zanolli looks at her child and is excited about the possibilities in their future, and who they will one day become.
“Gavin is still young right now, and it’s hard to know exactly what his gifts and skillset is,” she said.
“But I know we will find those and set him on that path where I know he is going to accomplish great things.”
And for children on the outside, looking in at the world of an autistic person, Zanolli says it’s OK to look and be curious. She wants people to ask questions and understand, because with that understanding comes the realization that different isn’t bad. It’s just…different.
“Autism isn’t scary,” she said. “I want kids to ask questions. Too often I think they feel embarrassed and that they shouldn’t ask.”
“It’s OK to ask questions and learn, and understand their (autistic) friends better. Being different is OK, and not a scary or embarrassing thing.”
It’s an idea that’s not just good for children, but for society as a whole. People need to know acceptance doesn’t mean pretending it isn’t there.
“When we see someone with a disability our automatic response is almost to shy away from it and not ask questions,” Zanolli said.
“I don’t think that’s a good thing. I think the more we are open to it and are willing to learn and understand, the more accepting we are going to be and we’re not going to look at disability as a whole as such a bad thing.”
“I treasure my meetings with individuals affected by autism,” said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in a message which marked this year’s World Autism Awareness Day, the seventh such day to be held.
“Their strength is inspiring. They deserve all possible opportunities for education, employment, and integration.”
Zanolli couldn’t agree more. She has started an Autism Parent Support Group in Taber. The group meets at Seasons Cafe in the Heritage Inn, the last Thursday of each month. All are welcome.
“We don’t want anybody to pity Gavin,” she said. “We want people to see him the way we do.”