Positive awareness of perceived disabilities in general, and autism in specific, is growing everywhere, and the Miss America Pageant is no exception. This year’s event was distinctive due to some of the contestants’ background stories. Two in particular stand out to me: Miss Montana, Alexis Wineman, is the first contestant to have autism, and Miss Iowa, Mariah Cary, who has Tourette’s Syndrome.

Recognition of these two individuals is remarkable in so many ways.  The most important being that the people, not the disorder, became the focus. So, I took time to view this link to Miss Montana and was certainly impressed with her platform, Normal is just a Dryer Setting. One thing she said in her video stood out to me, and I think it personifies what we’d all like to see relative to those with autism. “We cannot kill what is not a sickness,” she says. “But we can begin to understand autism and help those [with autism] to unlock the potential that lies in all of us.”

Truer words were never spoken. Even though she did not win the pageant, her message and the awareness that comes with her presence on stage are priceless.

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On November 29, Bob Wright, co-founder of Autism Speaks, stated this in his testimony to the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform,It’s Time for a National Autism Strategy … to address the $137 billion per year cost of autism. The status quo isn’t working. It is time we commit to a comprehensive national strategy for autism.”

However, ignorance of autism is a major obstacle challenging the status quo. It’s not just the government that needs to be involved; it must be a universal endeavor.

I almost cheered when I read “Autism can be an advantage, says researcher,” on NBCnews.com. Dr. Laurent Mottron, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Montreal said, “By seeing autism’s differences as defects, researchers may fail to fully understand the condition.”

Through my son Erik, I have first-hand experience of Mottron’s assertion. Individuals with autism receive and process information differently, but that doesn’t mean they are deficient, incapable or ignorant. It just means they process and respond differently.

The unfortunate result is those with autism face challenges finding jobs, communicating with and being accepted by mainstream society. As Wright says, “The majority of adults with autism are unemployed or underemployed, a tragic waste of potential.” But, given a safe environment and an opportunity to express their strengths, they can thrive.

A recent New York Times magazine article features Specialisterne, a company based on the tenets that, “given the right environment, an autistic adult could not just hold down a job but also be the best person for it.”

Specialisterne has appeared in this blog previously. Currently, the company concentrates on technology jobs. However, not everyone with autism excels in technology. Erik’s Ranch & Retreats focuses on what individuals with autism can do—not what they can’t—and builds on those skills. Both models are viable and promote self-sufficiency among a misunderstood population. Recognizing autism as an advantage and thinking outside the status quo is what will move us beyond it.