April is Autism Awareness Month and the value of awareness can’t be stated enough. My name is Aaron Likens and last year I have had a strange journey to discover that my passion in life is to raise awareness.
Raising awareness wasn’t always a priority. In fact, before I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in 2003 at the age of 20, I had not even really thought of the autism spectrum as anything worth thinking about. Of course all that changed once I was diagnosed.
After the diagnosis I went into a deep depression. My life, as I knew it, seemed to cease. I lost the girlfriend I had at the time and my first passion and dream, driving race cars, was becoming harder to achieve.
A year after I was diagnosed a funny thing happened. It was late at night, and my depression was at its deepest point, when I sat down and started to write. I wrote about the relationship I lost and broke it down into why my behaviors were the way they were. The next night I wrote on a different relationship that had fallen apart in spectacular fashion.
Night after night I wrote a chapter on different aspects of my life. I had no intention of writing a book, but after about 3 months of writing I started to ponder if it was good enough. My dad had been sending my materials to a lady at Autism Speaks who was reading as I was going along and she had told my dad that my writings were some of the most important, eye opening first-hand accounts of Asperger’s.
I started writing my first book in 2005 and in November of 2008 my book, “Finding Kansas: Decoding the Enigma of Asperger’s Syndrome” was released. I must admit that when it was released I was only anxious on what the sales meant for me. Just as my life changed when I was diagnosed, my life would take a turn in 2009.
I had my first book signing at a Barnes & Noble here in my hometown of Saint Louis. During the signing there were 2 sets of parents that came up, in tears, saying that their school district and doctor don’t understand. This may sound cold, but at the time I was simply thinking that these parents were at least one book sale. A classic case of lack of empathy, I know.
In the next 3 months I had 5 more signings and at each one the story that was told to me at the first signing was repeated. One parent was told, “Don’t worry about autism. He’ll grow out of it by the age of 16. They all do.” Still I was unmoved.
My dad had kept the lines of communication open with Autism Speaks and they sent me 2 tickets to the NASCAR Autism Speaks 400 held in Dover, Delaware. After the race I was going to drive up to meet the lady who first said my writings had merit.
During the race I began to truly think about what all parents had said to me at my signings. Above the roar of 43 engines I begun to understand just how wrong, and almost criminal, it is for parents’ fears to be cast aside. The quote from that one doctor roared around in my head faster and louder than any of the cars that day.
The following day I drove to New York City to meet with the lady. We talked for a long while and she asked me if I was still passionate about auto racing. I gave a reply that was more important than hearing that I was on the autism spectrum, “Yes, I still would like to race, but it no longer is the priority. Yesterday, Jimmie Johnson won the NASCAR race, but how many lives did he change? How many families’ lives were improved because of his victory? I had the talent to win, but life has a funny way of working out. I’m in a new race now, a race to raise awareness.”
Since that day in New York I have given radio interviews and have been more vocal on raising awareness. In March I started a full time job with Touch Point Autism Services as their Community Education Specialist to raise awareness and to promote early diagnosis and early intervention.
With this month as Autism Awareness Month there is no better time to spread the word. No parent should ever be told that autism will simply “go away”. Whereas before my life was about me, whether it was trying to race or trying to sell one book, now it is to try and educate anyone and everyone on what life is like on the spectrum and that there are therapies and interventions that work wonders.
So this April is my first Autism Awareness Month that I know what my passion is. I guess you could say that, for me, the race is on.
-written by Aaron Likens
About the author: Aaron Likens is the author of “Finding Kansas: Decoding the Enigma of Asperger’s Syndrome” and serves as Community Education Specialist for Touch Point Autism Services. His website is www.findingkansas.com and his blog can be found at http://lifeontheothersideofthewall.blogspot.com