Abfh has put up a really funny and thoughtful response to one of my favorite essays I use to try to knock a clue into the clueless, Welcome to Holland. If you're one of my friends without special needs kids, I recommend reading both essays. They are both wonderful gazes into coping with a life that isn't going as expected.
One thing I mentioned in my comment to abfh is that there is a basic attitude and ignorance problem in the "normal" world regarding not only autism, but special needs generally. The example that goes in context here are the parenting and childbirth classes I took when I was pregnant with Joey.
The textbook that came with the class does have a chapter on special needs children. It mostly focuses on problems with premies, but it also mentions things like Down's Syndrome. Autism isn't mentioned at all. The information is mostly about testing, and "talk to your doctor." Thre is very little useful information. The possibility of having a special needs child was only mentioned in passing in the class itself- mostly Down's Syndrome, and a mention that some kids might need some time in the NICU, especially if they are premature.
Why omit this very real and natural possibility? Why not bring it into the discussion, and let expecting parents think about preparing for the possibility? It's like being on a plane to Italy (you knew this part was coming, didn't you) without even having the suggestion that landing in Holland would be a possibility- and in fact, many excited holiday-goers have no clue that a plane routed for Italy could possibly land anywhere but Italy, or even that other countries exist. I mean, what if the plane lands in Lichtenstein (a country of which I am also fond)? I know a lot of people who have never even heard of Lichtenstein.
Wouldn't it be far better to note the possibility, so that we can at least take a peek at a tourguide of Holland before getting on the plane, or have an idea of where the embassy might be? But this is not the prevailing attitude "out there" in the "normal" world. Instead, instructors are concerned about frightening new parents "unnecessarily." Frightening them?
Standing in front of new and expecting parents, I think the first thing to say is "don't be afraid." The second is, "expect the unexpected." Even "normal" kids have "special needs." Some people just need more support than others to be able to survive and thrive. A child with special needs- born with them or otherwise- simply needs some extra support. How much depends on the need. What we should be providing is some basic resource information. OK, your kid has special needs... now what?
Parents who themselves have special needs seem to have a firmer grasp on the concept, because the possibility is so very present to them. For people who have never really dealt with special needs and disability, the whole idea is foreign. These are people who have no idea what an "IEP" is, have never heard of taking a kid to a neurologist, a gastrologist, an endocrinologist, or may even not know what a perinatologist is. These things are not part of their world. When I spoke, once upon and a long time- over a year- ago, about the day the word "autism" came into my life, that is really how it felt. I had no idea. And folks, I'm a very educated person. I know why people think of Rainman when the word autism drifts in- its the only exposure people had, if they had that much. Nowthere's a couple other pop culture references, but no more real education out there for the general, run-of-the-mill Nellie or Nathan Neurotypical.
People with "special needs" and disabilities are different. Different is unknown. Different is scary. But why? Take the fear out of the possibility of having a special needs child. Special needs kids are kids, like all other kids, with their own talents and gifts to offer, and their own lives to live. Don't be afraid. All kids come with challenges.