Advocates celebrate World Autism Awareness Day

NOVATO, Calif. (KTVU) -- World Autism Awareness Day was celebrated in Novato with one of the icons of the movement, renowned author and activist Temple Grandin.

"My mother was very good at stretching me," Grandin told a capacity crowd at the Hopmonk Tavern. "You've got to stretch these kids outside their comfort zone."

It's the eighth year for the international day of education and fundraising, and in thousands of locations people were encouraged to "light it up blue", wearing blue clothing and holding blue lights to shine attention on autism.

Prominent buildings and landmarks around the world were illuminated in blue as well.

Marin's event was packed with people with autism, their families, friends, teachers and therapists.

Grandin, nearing 70, is a college professor and author who has written extensively about growing up and learning to thrive with autism. She advised parents not to coddle their kids.

"The problem is, at one end of the spectrum you got somebody who ought to be working in Silicon Valley. And at the other end of the spectrum you've got somebody who can't dress themselves," Grandin told KTVU.

The key, she said, is finding and developing a child's strengths.

"Silicon Valley, half of them there have got autism, " Grandin declared, " They're socially awkward, but they know how to code. And if a kid is really good at coding, they're in."

At a reception before the speech, the crowd mingled and enjoyed an art display at a hair salon steps from the restaurant.

Every piece was created by people with autism, young and old.

Advocates say it's important to realize with 1 in 68 children diagnosed with some degree of autism, the world needs to be ready for them when they grow into adulthood.

"My son Ian just moved out, and he's living with three other young men who are also autistic," shared parent Janet Lawson. "He's living in a house about a mile from us and he works and goes to school, all very independently".

Alongside her, 20-year-old IIan Swearingen, voiced the ambitions of many young men his age, autistic or not.

"I would like to work at a job where they gave me lots of money!," he exclaimed.

As research into the disorder has advanced, so has understanding.

"It was called learning disabilities back in the sixties," 55-year-old Matt Kratoville told KTVU.

He expressed pride that his own autism hasn't kept him from succeeding at a 30-year career in a print shop.

"Maybe we are a little goofy and slow but give us a chance," he smiled. "We'll do it to it."

The crowd, at both Hopmonk and the NH2 Salon, was also gratified to hear from their North Bay Congressman, who has a 10-year-old son on the spectrum.

"Nathan knows that his autism makes him different, " revealed Rep. Jared Huffman to the audience, as his son listened with a broad smile, pumping his fists.

Huffman told KTVU he is crafting federal legislation to fully fund special education and make college more attainable for students with special needs.

"They can grow and learn and lead productive lives, " he insisted. "I have learned a lot as a parent. It challenges you. It also enriches you. It's just a heck of a journey."

Event organizer Nicole Hitchcock, co-owner of NH2 Salon, has seen attendance double every year since she started participating in Autism Awareness Day.

Her own son, Ramsey, is a fourth-grader, thriving at a school for students with special needs.

At the Vintage Oaks Mall, oak trees were wrapped in blue lights, which will remain on for the month of April.