SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ - April is Autism Awareness Month and, for the past eight years, April 2 has been recognized as World Autism Awareness Day. The Autism Speaks organization marks the day with its ‘Light It Up Blue’ campaign, encouraging buildings and landmarks throughout the world to turn blue and people to wear blue to raise awareness about the disorder.

In South Plainfield, Future Stars Preschool held its own ‘Light It Up Blue’ event, celebrating World Autism Awareness Day with its second annual balloon release. At 10:30 a.m. and again at 2 p.m., students, parents, teachers and staff gathered outside the school to release blue balloons in an effort to increase awareness.

“Every child, at some point in their life, is going to come into contact with someone who has autism,” said Future Stars PTO President and event organizer Danielle Staunton. “Awareness, understanding and compassion are so important.”

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This is the second year Future Stars has held the autism awareness event; last year, Staunton, whose son, Logan, attends the preschool and has autism, organized the event while serving as the PTO’s vice president. In addition to the balloon release, Staunton uses the day as an opportunity to increase awareness among Future Stars students, visiting classroom and sharing age-appropriate stories about autism with the preschoolers. This year, she also put together her own book about autism that includes Logan.

“I thought it might be more understandable/relatable if it is about someone they know from school,” Staunton said.

With the number of children diagnosed every year with autism continuing to grow, Staunton said events such as the balloon release help increase awareness as well as disprove misconceptions people may have about autism. “There is a saying that if you have seen one autistic person, you have seen one autistic person,” Staunton said. “They aren't all like the stereotypical ‘Rain Man’ persona; even though they may share some of the same general diagnosing traits, each and every one is different.”

Staunton, who has resided in South Plainfield since 2007 and is also mom to 6-year-old Olivia, a kindergartener at Kennedy School, said her overall goal is to help today’s generation see just how amazing autistic people are. “I want my son to grow up in a world where I don't have to worry about him being bullied and treated unfairly,” she said, adding, “Isn’t that what everyone wants for their children?”