Square Peg Ranch: Thoughts on Autism Awareness Day

In honor of Autism Awareness Day, Joell Dunlap challenges us to not just be autism aware but to fully embrace “the beauty of human dignity.” With photos by Robyn Peters.

You may recognize the name Square Peg Foundation from previous HN posts — in October 2014 we recognized them as our Standing Ovation of the Week, an honor we give to individuals and organizations that are doing good work in the horse world. Located Half Moon Bay, California, Square Peg’s mission is to honor the uniqueness in everyone, emphasis on horses and children. They mainly focus on the rescuing, rehabbing, retraining, and rehoming of ex-racehorses, as well as bringing these horses together with people, mainly children, on the autism spectrum. Joell Dunlap published the following post today on the Square Peg blog and was kind enough to share.

Things I Should Have Said

Yesterday was the biggest media opportunity of my 25+ year career in the horse industry. Two kind souls flew up from Los Angeles to film and to understand Square Peg Ranch through the lens of the America’s Best Racing doing a promotion with Autism Speaks. Today is world Autism Awareness day and I woke early this morning thinking with pride and the never ending self-flagellation “things I should have said.”

So many things to process from yesterday. Things like:

Parents told their stories while their kids illustrated them with laughter and wonder and simple joy. The camera caught the exhaustion of a family with a child having an autism “rough day.”

They guys treated everyone with kindness and patience — with humor and respect.  

The horses were shiny and kind and fat and well behaved.

The staff, the volunteers, the families all laughed and played and revealed their most beautiful selves.

The barn looked great – all of our hard work showed.

I couldn’t have asked for a better day.  

I know enough not to expect anything. What the editors will do with the footage is filed under the giant category labeled “not mine.”

But I’d be lying if I didn’t fantasize about “what if?”

What if this footage inspires people in all sorts of ways? Hopefully to donate, but maybe more importantly, to have discussions over dinner tables – to patch up family rifts – to show compassion to a neighbor you might more fully understand, or at least be curious about. Maybe someone smiles at that mom in the school parking lot.You know, the one with the bizarre kid that nobody plays with. I’d like to think about what might make a difference for her – and that smile could make all the difference. 

When the interviewer asked me what I understood about autism, I stumbled and I mumbled something about “autism is a spectrum and everyone is different – blah blah blah.” What I should have said is this:

Autism is best described in the literal sense; autism literally means “locked within the self.” Autistic people want what everyone wants. They want love and safety. They, like you, need community and dignity. Talk to any autistic adult and they will tell you two things, that loneliness and anxiety are the biggest hurdles.  

On Autism Awareness day, I want to talk about dignity. Because it’s as vital as the air we breathe and people are taking up that air debating vaccinations, different therapies, cures, who is on an organization’s board of directors and such.  

Why aren’t we talking about dignity? 

Kindness and awareness and even compassion all too often morph into something that smells an awful lot like pity. Pity makes anyone feel “less than” and that just isn’t going to fly. Treatments and therapies can only go so far if we don’t begin with an understanding of the simple need for human dignity. Otherwise, it becomes just another exercise in making the person being treated feeling more alone and more isolated. 

Being Autism Aware is a start. I’m grateful for that start. But today, I challenge you to step past “awareness” and even over the bridge of kindness and into the beauty of human dignity.

Awareness means acknowledging that mom in the school parking lot. Kindness means smiling at her and asking if she wants to join your mom’s group for coffee some morning. But Dignity means making an effort to find out what her child loves and bringing his strengths and intelligence into his peer group. Giving him an opportunity to share what he loves and giving it your genuine attention and curiosity is the truest gift. Listening is an act of love — especially when you don’t have the time. Developing an interest in what that person is passionate about is the key to unlocking autism — the missing puzzle piece if you will.

What I’ve learned in all these years -what I saw come to light in front of the camera yesterday is what my friend Rupert Isaacson told me years ago and I wasn’t brave enough to hear it — is that in giving that gift of dignity — all of your dreams – and I do mean all – will be realized. An added bonus: you will meet people that will rock your world.

This isn’t isolated to autism of course. It’s the same for anyone whose dignity is at risk because of depression, addiction, mental illness or other social stigma. Listen, lean in – give a sh*#.

I spend my days on the stunning California Coast surrounded by beautiful horses, laughing children, sleeping dogs, goats that endlessly entertain. I’m surrounded by a loving family and friends. This is the life I’ve dreamed of since I could remember dreaming and it’s all possible because we spend our days in service of delivering the simple and necessary gift of dignity. 

What I saw yesterday at the ranch and what I dare to dream the camera and editors will reveal on national TV is that it’s laughter and caring that connects us.  It’s in delivering care with dignity to each other that makes dreams come true.

Sermon over — I’m going to go and play with horses. 

Go Riding.

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