By Ashley Rickards, actress of MTV's "Awkward."
A few years ago, I had the incredible opportunity to portray a teenager with autism in the film "Fly Away." It was an eye-opening experience.
Autism is a general term used to describe a group of complex developmental brain disorders -- autism spectrum disorders. We don’t know what, exactly, causes autism, but we do know that a combination of genes and environmental influences is probably involved. We also know that no two people’s autism is exactly alike, which is why it’s called a spectrum disorder. Some people are severely affected, while others are dealing with less significant challenges, especially in the area of socialization.
I learned that the world can be an overwhelming place for people with autism. Some of the everyday sights, sounds and social interactions that most of us don't think twice about can be difficult for people with autism to handle.
Photo: Ashley playing a teen with Autism in "Fly AWay." (Cricket Films)
Now imagine trying to deal with these daily challenges while you're at school, and add the potential for bullying into the mix. Imagine the frustration of working hard to do well in school, of trying your best to fit in socially and then being confronted by people who want to give you a hard time just because you're different.
Research has shown that almost two-thirds of kids with autism between the ages of 6 and 15 are bullied at some point in their lives. Most of these kids are already struggling with communication issues and social skills and now have to handle the added feelings of stress and anxiety that come with the teasing and taunting from their peers.
What can you do? Make an effort to get to know someone with autism in your school. You'll expose yourself to new perspectives and experiences that will change your outlook on life. In the process, you'll help make your school the comfortable and safe place it should be for every single student.
This month is Autism Awareness Month. But the fact is, we should be aware of people with autism, their struggles, their triumphs and their many contributions every month. People with autism are our schoolmates, our neighbors, our cousins, our brothers and sisters. All of us need to learn more about this disorder that is becoming increasingly common. Unbelievably, one in 88 kids, including one in 54 boys, is diagnosed with autism.
Take the time to really get to know someone with autism and I guarantee your eyes will be opened, just like mine were.
+ Watch Ashley's PSA on Autism.