April 2, 2008, was a special day in the history of ASD awareness and the growing ASD advocacy movement: the inaugural World Autism Awareness Day (WAAD).
In response to the rapidly increasing prevalence of ASD all over the world, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously declared WAAD in December 2007 in order to promote worldwide awareness and acceptance of children and adults with ASD. The fact that WAAD is one of only four official health-specific United Nations days clearly signals the level of global concern surrounding ASD in today’s society.
Now approaching its eighth annual celebration, WAAD has become an important, multi-faceted event that brings together researchers, caregivers, policy makers, health care professionals, members of the general public, and individuals with ASD in a variety of activities. Community groups around the world host events to showcase and celebrate the talents of individuals with ASD; associations take the opportunity to hold fundraising events to support ASD research and services; and organizations conduct awareness-building campaigns to help educate the public and foster greater understanding of ASD.
One of the most visible examples of such campaigns is the Light It Up Blue initiative, a unique global endeavour launched by the ASD science and advocacy organization Autism Speaks. Created in order to literally shine a light on ASD, Light It Up Blue encourages iconic landmarks all over the world, as well as private homes and businesses, to light a striking blue light on April 2 in support of ASD awareness.
In addition to building general awareness, WAAD also serves as a call to specific action. Generating understanding is a vital part of helping make the world more inclusive and welcoming for people with ASD, but concrete actions are also essential. WAAD calls upon all UN member states to invest in people with ASD: to support education programs, create employment opportunities, and develop services that respond to the diverse needs of children and adults on the autism spectrum. In so doing, WAAD takes as its framework the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was created to prevent exclusion and discrimination against individuals with disabilities, as well as to ensure and facilitate their access to services.
A final significant aspect of WAAD activities is the dissemination of practical information about ASD, particularly to the families and caregivers of those affected by the condition. In particular, WAAD highlights the importance of early diagnosis and intervention to the positive ongoing development of a child with ASD: vital health information that is still in need of more widespread awareness. In addition, organizations like Autism Speaks use WAAD as an occasion to develop and circulate information about various ASD resources, including comprehensive lists of ASD support organizations worldwide.