By Cristina Paolozzi, April 1, 2021—
On April 2, the Autism Aspergers Friendship Society (AAFS) and Autism Calgary will be hosting the eighth annual World Autism Awareness Day (WAAD) through an online platform called Remo. Since 2014, WAAD has been celebrated downtown by the Olympic Plaza. Although the pandemic still restricts large gatherings, participants will be able to celebrate by registering for the event and blowing bubbles to show support and acceptance of the Autistic community in Calgary.
In an interview with the Gauntlet, Tracy Mendoza, the event planner for WAAD, spoke about the significance of this event, and the support this event highlights for members of the Autistic community in Calgary.
“World Autism Awareness Day, the YYC version, started in 2014 as the United Nations named April 2 World Autism Awareness Day,” says Mendoza.
She continues saying that since the beginning of WAAD being celebrated in Calgary, “we wanted to be recognized as Calgary’s version of World Autism Awareness Day. So, we picked a place [to host the event] that had the Calgary Tower in the background, and City Hall and all that.”
Mendoza describes that their first turnout was 300 people and featured performers and entertainers who were on the Autism spectrum. Over the course of the eight years WAAD has been celebrated in Calgary, but the past two years have been virtual due to the pandemic.
“From 2016 on we’ve had more than 1,000 people attend,” Mendoza states.
Mendoza also speaks to the community engagement WAAD receives every year in the city. From art displays, to ice-cream, princesses to martial arts lessons, there are always interactive activities that invite and welcome individuals from the Autistic community and allies of the Autistic community.
“And then last year on March 15 we were told to quarantine, so we moved it all to a video. We did a pre-recorded video ASAP and that was our event last year,” Mendoza said about the abrupt changes that needed to be made as a result of COVID-19. “This year, we have a platform called Remo. We have a customized floor plan developed for our events specifically, but it is now attainable by other countries.”
“Our plan looks like Olympic Plaza. It has the arts stations, bouncy castles, picnic tables and the Calgary Tower in the background — so very Calgary-ized,” Mendoza jokes.
Part of this year’s event has participants engaged in a virtual bubble blowing activity, which Mendoza describes as a way to show support and solidarity with the Autistic community. She says that blowing bubbles as a part of the event has been around since 2014 when WAAD started in Calgary.
Mendoza shares that planners for the event, including herself, started by asking if there was a way to unite everyone and create a special moment that could be done at every years’ event.
“It’s just something that everyone can participate in,” says Mendoza. “And then it evolved through the years and now in the eighth year, one of our practicum students came up with an art project and tied it into this year, like to quarantining.”
Mendoza describes how this art project encourages people to submit their work which will be created into “one magnificent masterpiece at the end.”
“The objective is for people — not just kids, anyone can participate — to do art that shows what life was like in quarantine. Who was in their bubble, who did they miss in their bubble and what activities did they do in their bubble,” continues Mendoza.
Mendoza, a mother of a 20-year-old on the Autism spectrum, also revealed a more personal reason as to why World Autism Awareness Day is an important day to remember, as it reminds the community to not only be understanding, but to also be more accepting. Autism Calgary provided Mendoza with information and a better understanding of Autism and how to support her son through his diagnosis.
“Everything was hard. Going grocery shopping was hard. When I was given this opportunity to make this event shine, it was kind of my way of saying just be kind. You don’t even know what a family is going through, or someone in line at the grocery store, or someone sitting in front of you,” said Mendoza.
“To raise that awareness wasn’t just for the general public to understand. Part of the reason we [held this event] at Olympic Plaza was because downtown Calgary was busy back then.” Mendoza states that when members of the general public were on their lunch break, it provided a great learning opportunity for people unfamiliar with Autism, or provided more context and support for people who knew of or interacted with the Autistic community.
“Some of our families and community members would show up to the event and their own child would discover that they’re on the spectrum. Or adults would be like, ‘Hey, I’ve had Autism my whole life, I’m going to go get diagnosed.’ So there’s an awareness everywhere, and I think that that’s important so that people can develop an understanding and a tolerance and just an acceptance. The United Nations called it Autism Awareness Day, but many in our community agree that it should be Autism Awareness and Acceptance Day. We don’t just want people to be aware, we want people to accept it as well.”
“The biggest part is that Autism is invisible,” contines Mendoza. “When we call forth for people to be kind or to understand or to be patient, they don’t understand immediately because they don’t see someone before them who looks disabled. Because it’s invisible, it calls forth a little bit more acceptance.”
At the University of Calgary, the Autism Awareness Club advocates for this acceptance that World Autism Awareness Day strives to promote. A statement given by Haley Mather, president of the Autism Awareness Club at the U of C, reads, “To raise awareness and acceptance of autism spectrum disorder and differences in everyone, the United Nations named April 2 World Autism Awareness Day. We help society embrace diversity in not only autism, but both visible and invisible disabilities. Autism Awareness Club at the University of Calgary achieves this through providing volunteering opportunities, educational seminars and social events — all of which is ultimately seeking to promote neurodiversity across the university campus and provide a place of support and community for autistic students.”
World Autism Awareness Day will be taking place online from 11 a.m.–2 p.m. live on Remo. The open registration link can be found here. To learn more about this event, check out their Instagram and Facebook pages. For more information and educational opportunities at the U of C, check out the Autism Awareness Club on campus and sign up for their educational seminar which will be taking place on April 12 at 5 p.m.