World Autism Awareness Day is April 2

World Autism Awareness Day

Guest post by Kristen Oelschlagel

On April 2, don blue clothes and decorate with blue in support of the 7th Annual World Autism Awareness Day Light It Up Blue Campaign. Light It Up Blue is a great way to show your support and acceptance for those with autism.

More than a quarter of a million Canadian families are directly affected by autism. One of those families is the Des Brisay family. After speaking with the Des Brisays, it is safe to say I will never look at autism the same again. Even after all they’ve been through, they have never thought of autism as a bad thing. As they’ve taught me, the disorder isn’t something that needs to be cured. Instead, it needs to be accepted and celebrated.

Tommy Des Brisay was diagnosed with autism when he was two years old. Growing up in a time when the disorder was not well understood, he and his parents experienced many challenges. “We felt a lack of understanding and support, and managing Tommy was extremely challenging,” says his mother MaryAnn. While their dream was for Tommy to attend the neighbourhood school that his brother Paul went to, every attempt was unsuccessful. “By the time Tommy was 10 years old he began attending an autism class a 30-minute drive from home. We really tried to get him in a regular class, but the barriers were quite insurmountable.”

Between helping Tommy with various tasks, advocating and seeking professional help, MaryAnn constantly worried for his safety. “His frustration around communication was the source of self-injury and meltdowns that are hard to describe,” she says. Regardless, she was devoted to finding the best ways to help Tommy communicate and be happy. In her ongoing mission to help her son find joy, MaryAnn has been able to do the same. “You also have to have a sense of humour,” she says. “You have to enjoy Tommy for who he is.”

Tommy’s parents helped bring their son happiness by supporting his love of stories. As a youngster, Disney movies always held his attention. Continually adding to his collection of Disney movies, toys, books and games, Tommy’s parents learned that the movies did more than just entertain him. When he watched them with subtitles, they helped him learn to speak. In 2009, his love of Disney turned into an annual trip to Disney World. Today, it’s hard for Tommy to choose a favourite memory of those times. “I like to watch Finding Nemo, The Musical, at Disney’s Animal Kingdom,” he says.

Now 22, Tommy is an accomplished athlete in Ottawa, ON. Thanks to support from his dad, Peter, and the athletic community, Tommy has had great success as a runner. He has won many 10K races, he twice finished fifth overall in the Ottawa Army Run Half Marathon, and he achieved ninth out of 12,000 runners in the Disney Half Marathon. Tommy never forgets when it all started—what he calls his Runniversary. “I started working at the Lion’s Dome [in Ottawa] when I was 15 years old, after I started running on Wednesday, August 2, 2006 when I was 14 years old,” he says.

MaryAnn says that while athletics and Disney have been crucial in helping her son, she believes something else has changed his life—social media. Not only is Tommy very active on Facebook and Twitter, he also has a website (autismmeansfriendship.com) and a YouTube channel called lookyus. “Tommy has gained an increasing number of friends worldwide who have genuinely become part of his daily life,” says MaryAnn. She’s found Facebook to be therapeutic for him, and through the YouTube channel he has been able to inspire others with special needs. With his growing online presence, MaryAnn says they have received growing support. “The heartwarming and truly heartfelt thank-you messages we receive from his viewers have become overwhelming and unbelievably touching.”

It’s been 20 years since Tommy was diagnosed but MaryAnn says it is still a struggle for families with autistic children to get the support they need. With autism affecting one in 88, it’s a challenge that many have to face.  That’s why this April 2 landmarks, hotels, bridges, stores and homes around the globe will “Light It Up Blue” in support of autism awareness. Go blue and show your support!

Photo Courtesy FlickrCC/Cheryl

This post was updated on March 31, 2014.