I remember the moment, as clear as day. I was at a stoplight behind a car which sported an autism awareness magnet on its rear bumper. I thought to myself, “Why do I see these so often? I don’t know anyone with autism.”

Fate has a funny way, you see. It couldn’t have been weeks later when I found myself attending a kick-off luncheon for the 2006 Autism Speaks’ Long Island Walk Now for Autism. I knew almost nothing when I walked in the ballroom of the hotel where the event was being hosted. By the time I left, I felt a need to contribute to make a difference – what began as an offer to volunteer resulted in me embarking on a new career that subsequently changed my life.

When I began working at Autism Speaks in 2006, 1 in 166 children were being diagnosed with autism. That number is now 1 in 110. Autism is the fastest-growing serious developmental disability in the U.S. and more children will be diagnosed with autism this year than with AIDS, diabetes & cancer combined. There is also no cure or medical detection.

I have heard thousands of stories and had the pleasure of getting to know countless individuals and families who live with autism each and every day. People who have autism are some of the bravest and hardest working individuals I have ever encountered. One of my favorite parts of my job involves sharing stories, submitted by people who have autism and their families, on our website and blog. Some of the stories are happy; we hear from the father of a boy with autism, who scored a touchdown during his second season of Pop Warner football. Some of the stories leave me feeling that the world isn’t fair – that people who have autism don’t deserve to struggle in the ways that they do. But most importantly, I am reminded that these people need your help.

April is Autism Awareness Month. It kicks off tomorrow, April 1, when iconic buildings and landmarks (think Empire State Building, Niagara Falls, Fenway Park) around the world are being lit up in blue to “shine a light on autism.” April 2 is the third annual World Autism Awareness Day (WAAD). Events held around the world that day help to increase and develop world knowledge of autism. Additionally, WAAD celebrates the unique talents and skills of persons with autism.

So why does any of this matter? Quite simply, people who have autism and their loved ones NEED YOU.

I know what you’re thinking – everyone is asking for money these days and who am I to tell you that this is where your money needs to go. Well, here’s something that should make you reconsider. Beginning tomorrow, your donation at autismspeaks.org will be matched. If you give $5, a generous benefactor will turn that into $10. Your $50 becomes $100.

$5 – it’s a (delicious) caramel macchiato at Starbucks (but if I can skip one day, you can, too.)

But … money isn’t everything. There are other ways you can help make a difference, beginning tomorrow.

* Light It Up Blue by wearing blue to work on Friday. Be sure to tell people that you are raising awareness for autism!

* Get involved electronically! Become a fan of Autism Speaks on Facebook (www.autismspeaks.org/facebook) and create a “birthday cause” to raise funds online. Follow us on Twitter too!

* Shop at one of the many awesome retailers who support Autism Speaks in April.

* Show compassion and understanding. A child acting out in public may not be badly behaved – s/he might have autism. Give families the benefit of the doubt. Additionally, if you know someone with a family member who has autism, stop by and ask how you can help out!

* Wear our pin. The Autism Speaks puzzle piece is swiftly becoming known as the worldwide symbol of autism awareness. Wear your pin to show your support for all our families around the globe who live with autism every day.

* Walk with us! Walk Now for Autism Speaks at an event near you. Visit http://www.walknowforautismspeaks.org/ to find a Walk in your area – create a Walk team, volunteer on Walk day and have fun while helping to raise funds.

* Run for the cause. Join one of our Autism Speaks marathon teams in New York, Chicago, Orlando and more.

* Volunteer for one of our upcoming special events! From golf outings to concerts to galas, Autism Speaks can always use extra hands to assist in the execution of a variety of fundraising events. To volunteer, please e-mail our Special Events Department at eventvolunteers@autismspeaks.org.

* Host an event for Autism Speaks! Charge a small fee at your next happy hour, birthday party or other event and have the proceeds benefit Autism Speaks. Get a group of your friends and colleagues together for a good time for a good cause! E-mail events@autismspeaks.org for more information.

* Help pass critical autism legislation in your state or nationally. Visit http://www.autismvotes.org/ to become an advocate – from your computer. Keep the pressure on Congress to end insurance discrimination against children with autism.

* Learn the warning signs of autism. Early diagnosis can make a lifetime of difference.

Understand that this is important. If you don’t know someone who has autism today, you soon will. I hope that this April you will join me in raising much needed awareness. 

Thank you – from me, all of my wonderful co-workers and volunteers, and the many amazing people whose lives touch me on a daily basis. You can, and will, make a difference beginning now.