Friday, April 2, 2010

Autism Awareness Day Social Experiment

April 2, 2010 is Autism Awareness Day. My friend Lydia asked me if I wanted to pass out autism awareness pins in honor of it. I'd never done anything like that before, but I immediately said, "That would be a great idea!"

She sent me 50 beautifully made pins, made out of actual puzzle pieces and pinned to a yellow card that said "Autism Awareness Day: Where do you fit?" I supplemented them with an information sheet I made on about what autism is and local resources (and yes, I put my blog on there, too.) Besides wanting to raise autism awareness, I was curious about the social implications of how many people would or would not accept the pins, and what their reactions would be.

When my friend N and I arrived at Monument Square, a popular gathering place in downtown Portland Maine, we were happy to see a lot of people out and about. We weren't the only ones offering free wares to the public, either. There was a woman with a "Free Hugs!" sign already there. I had seen her once before and loved the idea. I gave a pin and a sheet to her friend, and took a picture of her.

From an operation base by the center of Monument Square, I scouted the territory. I next targeted two men leaning against the wall of a coffee shop. I went over, with Nate behind me, and said, as loudly and clearly as I could, "Hi. It's Autism Awareness Day. I have some autism awareness pins and information to hand out. Would you like one?" They both said and thanked me.

The woman sitting in the outdoor restaurant declined, which I probably should have figured. But the woman sitting against the monument with her cute one year old daughter proved to be very amiable. When we handed her the pin and sheet, she said, "My daughter has kidney disease. Somehow, we seem to go to the same doctors as the kids with autism. So I see a lot of them." We talked for a few minutes, and I took pictures of her beautiful baby daughter. I have to include these because they are just so cute! The second picture is the best picture I took all day.

For the next 45 minutes or so, I targeted people in the square who were either standing or walking slowly. I discovered that stopping people who are walking through generally did not work, and stopping people who were not smiling did not work either. A few minutes after we showed up, yet another duo out to enjoy the sunny weather and the people it brought showed up. They had a big sign that said "Speak About the Future," and a tape recorder. So, we went up to them and spoke about the future. I told them a nice roast beef salad was in my future, because we were going to Whole Foods afterwards. And we gave them a pin and a sheet.

Most people said yes and were quite friendly. There were only a few who refused, and no one I wouldn't have expected to. After alternately taking pictures and handing out flyers in Monument Square for a while, we headed back to the cat to get my coat and gloves. At 49 degrees, it was way too cold for just a sweatshirt. So much for the 70 degrees that had been promised.

It was getting dark, so we headed down Exchange Street to an area known as Tommy's Park. We found several people there to give flyers to. One person there told us he had a friend who had a kid with autism. Then we stumbled upon the should-have-been obvious idea of standing at the intersection of Exchange and Middle and stopping people walking by.

We got four or five people in a row that way. Presumably people on their way to go out to dinner and in a good mood. For every person, I gave my spiel, trying to keep it short and enthusiastic, and then held my breath for a second while waiting for their decision. It was gratifying to some degree, because most people seemed to be pleasantly surprised and then very pleased, giving an enthusiastic and genuine "No, thank *you*!" back to me when I thanked them.

My favorite moment, though, was the party of four well dressed people, mostly men, that I stopped. They were one of the few groups where every single person took a flyer and a pin, to my surprise. And even more surprising, as they were walking away, one of the men shouted out "Wear blue!" It took me a minute to react. "Wait, how does he know about that?" I said to N and R, who apparently did not know about it either. I called after him as he was crossing the street, "How did you know about that?"
"My friend has a kid with autism," he shouted back with a smile.
"But how did you find out about the blue?" I said.

I forget his answer, actually, but still thought it was cool. There has been an Internet campaign the last several days for everyone to wear blue on Autism Awareness Day. I thought the idea was somewhat silly, because the non-autism aware people were not going to have any idea that the blue signified anything. I thought it was just limited to a few people on the Internet. But apparently, this man had heard of it.

We walked down Exchange and talked to a few more people. One was a teacher at a school for autistic kids and said she didn't need to be any more aware, but she took a flyer anyway.

In the end, we gave flyers out to about thirty people. There was an equal number of males and females who accepted, although I didn't keep count. (I had originally meant to.) There were about seven or eight out of around 40 in total that did not accept the flyer or pin. What is that, around 23%? There was a similar number, seven or eight, who mentioned they knew someone with autism after being given the flyer. If one in every 150 has autism, and we talked to 40 people, does that mean that the results were higher than the national rate? I think so. And it was definitely a random sample.

We walked back, me with flyers in hand, and went to Whole Foods for dinner. I thank N and R for their help in holding and passing out the flyers, as well as for their moral support in this endeavor. And thanks also goes to Lydia for providing the pins and the idea. Many people commented on how pretty they were. One person even thought I was selling them, and took one when I told her they were free. I'd love to do it again. I like connecting with people, as long as they are as friendly as this crowd was.

The taking pictures part was also fun.


  1. Thanks, Kate. A neat activity, I'm sure it made a difference in your area that you did it; you never know how the smallest action will turn out, but it is often in the most surprising ways.

  2. Great article and wonderful pictures. There was big ad in the Portland Press Herald advertising April as Autism Awareness Month and also said to wear blue! Are you going to join the big Autism walk happening later this month?

  3. That is an excellent idea. I'm glad you got out there and spread awareness! Go Kate!

    I had not heard about the blue, but coincidently I wore a blue shirt that day. :)

    PS Today the UM is hosting the Spring Hullabaloo Autism Awareness event. I expect it will be awesome.


  4. What a lovely campaign/social experiment.

    For a few years now, since the start of the 21st century, autism organisations of my acquaintance have had the spectrum pin, which is gold.

    (Great idea, Lydia!)

    It was great to hear about all the people's reactions, and see the cute baby.

    I think I was well aware of the blue.

  5. Very nice! I am doing an Autism walk later this month and we are going to an Autism benefit barbecue this weekend. Nice to see more activity happening to support Autism Awareness.