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Martin Luther King, Jr. statue surrounded by cherry blossoms in Washington DC.


Celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. and Autism Awareness

ASNC Connections Specialist Nicole Harris

Nicole Harris, Connections Specialist

The Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday represents so many meaningful things- peace, love, and empowerment for those who are marginalized.  As a Black parent of a child with autism, it also represents inclusion to me.  There is no question that families impacted by autism have to do things differently.  And that includes how we celebrate holidays.  As I’ve learned more about autism over the years and how it affects my son, I have discovered unique ways to celebrate holidays to help him understand the meanings behind them and to make lasting memories with our family.  It’s my way of truly accepting his differences and needs as I hope that anyone else will too.

When we lived in Raleigh, I would take my son and two sisters to the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Gardens on MLK Day.  Our community had a special tradition of placing balloons and flowers at his statue for his birthday.  Thankfully, my son had effective therapeutic interventions in his early years, and he didn’t have issues with elopement (e.g. running away).  So, we would take birthday balloons to the memorial gardens every year and explore the grounds while taking family pictures.  Some years we stayed longer than others, depending on how my son was feeling about being there, but it was a family tradition that he knew to expect and participate in.

Statue of Martin Luther King in the Raleigh Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Gardens

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Gardens, Raleigh.

Because I had two other children who weren’t Autistic, I made sure to include them in activities that I knew my son wouldn’t necessarily enjoy for the holiday.  For example, I took them to one of their favorite places, Dollar Tree, to pick out the birthday balloons for Dr. King.  And a trip to Krispy Kreme for doughnuts or to Dairy Queen for ice cream when we left the memorial gardens would always make them feel like they had a fun outing for that day with their brother.

Holidays like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day were fun to celebrate with all of my children because I learned to meet them where they were.  Here are some practices that could help parents achieve that as well:

Create activities based on your child’s specific likes and needs.  For example, my son has always craved movement for his sensory input and regulation.  So on MLK day, I would play Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” tribute song and we had dance time as many times as he wanted.  My son wasn’t into tactile things and textures as much, but his sisters loved to help me cook, so we made “Dr. King Birthday Cookies”.  My son liked pouring and stirring, so he would participate with that.  And all the while, I would take candid pictures of my kids dancing around, making those sweet treats, and exploring the memorial gardens on MLK Day.  I made a photo album and added pictures each year of their times together.  And if they made any art or special assignments at school for MLK Day, I added them to the photo album as well.  I made sure the photo album was somewhere visible in our home so that they could look through it at any time.  My son particularly enjoyed doing that.  Like many individuals with autism, visual references are so impactful for him.  And it filled my heart with joy anytime he would randomly mention those memories that he made with his sisters.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s beautiful legacy of love will live on forever.  And for my special family, the unique traditions that we made together to celebrate his life are a symbol that love and acceptance can look like whatever you need it to for you.

If you have any questions for Nicole Harris, you can email her here. For general questions and autism resources, please contact an ASNC Autism Resource Specialist.

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