Gerber: April brings awareness of social issues

April is an important month for me personally, as well as thousands of Americans and people everywhere. For me, it is a chance to remind people to respect their fellow human beings no matter what kind of situation they find themselves living with. April is National Sexual Assault Awareness Month, as well as World Autism Awareness Month. Seemingly unrelated topics: one having to do with a mental disorder, the other with the abuse and violation of other people. But the main goal in gaining awareness of both issues is the defeat of preconceptions, misunderstandings, and hurtful actions.

I've mentioned to friends that April is Autism Awareness Month. They look at me funny and say things like, "Oh, but I am aware of it, so it's not a big deal or anything" – which is not the point.

In the United States, most people are, in fact, aware of the fact that autism exists. They've watched YouTube videos or movies about autism, or heard about it in a psychology or childhood education class. However, some people still think all autistic kids are piano masters or other kinds of prodigies. This is false. The disorder is actually called autism spectrum, and some autistic people function quite normally within the conventions of society. Individuals with autism are still people, and as such are diverse and capable of different things.

Also, in some parts of the world there are still people who aren't aware of it. There are people who think that an autistic person is possessed by demons or cursed. Those people need to be informed and educated so that they become aware that autistic people and their families are not being punished or bewitched.

Americans, also need to realize that autistic people are still people: human beings with feelings and dreams and lives just like anyone else.

So when I remind my friends about Autism Awareness Month, I am, in fact, aware that they know what autism is. I am telling them that this is a month not just about knowledge of autism, but understanding and empathy for those whose lives are changed by it.

There are also plenty of misconceptions about the subject of sexual assault. "Oh, she was walking around dressed like that, so it's her fault." "Suck it up, be a man. What are you? A weakling?"

First, women never ask to be sexually assaulted, no matter what they are wearing. No one in his or her right mind asks for his or her sense of safety within their own body to be ripped away.

Second – yes – men are sexually assaulted. It doesn't make them weak, or "unmanly." It means someone violated them in a way no one should ever be violated. They should receive support, not judgment.

Not everyone has these misconceptions about autism or sexual assault. But they do exist, and need to be addressed – and April is as good a time as any to engage in these important conversations.