Special Voices: April is Autism Awareness Month

By Daniel Smrokowski  | Bugle Columnist

This month of April, we celebrate Autism Awareness Month, a time to educate our communities about how it feels to be diagnosed with autism, or other types of developmental disabilities.

Take for example, Eric Baumann, 32, of Vienna, Illinois, my friend and fellow athlete and Global Messenger in Special Olympics Illinois. Eric was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, which is high-functioning autism and now is considered a part of autism spectrum disorder.

“I like having autism because it makes me who I am,” said Eric.

Many who have autism struggle with certain tasks that may come easy for others who are not diagnosed with autism. Eric said that he takes things literally so “when people tease me I don’t know how to understand that at times.”

Once you get to know someone who was diagnosed with autism, you have the opportunity to learn the amazing abilities that they do have. Eric has the ability of memorizing lots of music.

“I could tell you the artist and the song by heart because I have about 5,000 songs on my iPod,” Eric said.

Despite the struggles of having autism, Eric enjoys participating in Special Olympics and speaking as a Global Messenger on behalf of the more than 22,000 Illinois athletes.

Eric has been involved as an athlete in Special Olympics Illinois for more than 20 years. Since beginning to compete in 1995, Eric has competed in nine sports including: athletics, bocce, basketball, bowling, snowshoeing, softball, volleyball, flag football and aquatics.

Similarly to Eric, I also have participated in aquatics, softball and basketball in Special Olympics Illinois.

In the year 2000, Eric became a Global Messenger for Special Olympics Illinois. In this role, he is invited to speak before community groups, sharing how the movement of Special Olympics has helped to transform his life and the lives of so many of us with special needs.

One way we are educating our community about how Special Olympics transforms our lives is with the first-ever Capitol Day 2016 for Special Olympics Illinois.

Come this April 13, Eric, myself and a group of our fellow Special Olympics Illinois athletes, board members, and staff will flock to Springfield. We will be meeting with legislators to inform and educate them about how Special Olympics is positively impacting the state of Illinois.

“Sometimes they may not know about autism so we just have to explain it to them,” said Eric.

When Eric is not participating in Special Olympics, he enjoys playing games, hanging out with his friends and family and playing with technology.  Eric also works as a janitor at the Interstate 57 “Trail of Tears” Rest Area. It is here where he gets to meet people from different cultures.  Whether Eric is involved in Special Olympics Illinois, hanging out with his friends and family, or at work, those in his community are able to accept and include him.

This month, I hope that you will learn how to accept and include those with special needs and recognize the abilities that we do have. Join me during Autism Awareness Month and let’s change the game to educate our communities about autism.

Daniel Smrokowski was born three-and-a-third months premature and was diagnosed with learning disabilities and a severe language disorder.  He is an Athlete and Global Messenger with Special Olympics Illinois on the Southeast Association for Special Parks and Recreation team.  Daniel is the founder of Special Chronicles nonprofit new media company, a pioneering network that gives respect and voice to people with special needs. Come join us at www.SpecialChronicles.com.

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