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Akst: Flash mobs, blue lights and autism awareness

Occasionally I get to stretch my photography muscles and shoot a trade show or a friend’s wedding.

On Tuesday, I had one of the most delightful gigs ever. A friend who teaches at Northern Illinois University stopped her lecture a bit early to unleash a flash mob. My job was to capture witness reaction.

Unbeknownst to students in the large lecture room at NIU’s Cole Hall, she had arranged for people (students already in class and some waiting in the lobby) to suddenly come to the front of the room and bust some choreographed moves to an upbeat, lyric-less tune.

The true genius is that she also has a research interest in flash mobs, so it was a two-fer.

The dancers and the professor all wore blue and the large screen behind them explained the reason for the flash mob – to highlight World Autism Awareness Day, which was Tuesday. Buildings and structures throughout the world were lit blue in celebration of this awareness-raising day.

As they danced, I shot faces showing delight, surprise, embarrassment, wonder and interest. Many clapped along; many whipped out their phones to record the event.

I didn’t see one expression of worry, despair or doubt. It struck me later that day that the expressions I didn’t see are likely the ones parents have when they first realize their child is “different.”

Of course, parents show love, determination, belief and incredible strength of will to make the world a better place for a child with autism or an autism spectrum disorder. I’ve seen those expressions on several parents I know, and they’re remarkable.

You’ve seen those expressions, too.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines ASDs as “a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.” Anyone who has or knows a child with an ASD would reel from this understatement.

Spectrum disorders mean that ASDs affect each person in different ways ranging from very mild to severe. “People with ASDs share some similar symptoms, such as problems with social interaction. But there are differences in when the symptoms start, how severe they are, and the exact nature of the symptoms,” the CDC says.

Other facts about ASDs:

• There are no medical tests to detect them with any certainty.

• There are incurable.

• They begin in early childhood and last a lifetime.

• They occur in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups.

• They are almost five times more common among boys than among girls, although some disorders are more common among girls.

The urgency to find the causes of these disorders is growing. In 2008, the CDC said about 1 in 88 kids was affected.

That’s truly scary, but then came March 2013, when a new CDC report found a prevalence rate of 1 in 50. People, that’s 2 percent of kids. The new data are based on a telephone survey of 100,000 parents of children ages 6 to 17. The new rate doesn’t replace the 1 in 88 official rate, but it strongly suggests that the prevalence of autism disorders is even higher than first thought.

Typical symptoms are almost too heartbreaking to contemplate in a young child just beginning to behold the world. A child with an ASD might not play “pretend” games, might be uninterested in other people, might avoid eye contact and seek solitude, might resist being cuddled. They might stop saying words they once knew.

For the sake of everyone, please read about and support research of ASDs.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at

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