April Is Autism Awareness Month: A Time for Developing Acceptance (an article for the Biltmore Beacon)

Mission Children’s Hospital and Mission Health have a regular column in The Biltmore Beacon, a weekly publication in the South Asheville area. Mission asked Family Support Network of Western North Carolina to write a piece for Autism Awareness Month, and FSN in turn asked me to pen it. (I’m chair of FSN’s Advisory Committee, as well as a family trainer and support parent for FSN and the former facilitator of its monthly parent group.) The article published today. Now, the piece was just allotted 400 words. I probably use more words than that in my average spoken sentence (just ask my son); I’m pretty sure I have more words than that on the front of the business card I’ve been drafting. Nonetheless, here it is, as I submitted it. It’s really unlike most of the autism material you’ll find on this blog: it’s an introductory piece written not to offer my own voice and perspective but rather simply to raise autism awareness and, as the title and substance indicate, foster greater acceptance. I’m going to supplement the short resource list at the end of the piece as thoughts about it occur to me. You can also read the piece on The Mountaineer website here, and of course pick up this week’s print Biltmore Beacon at the very finest establishments and organizations in the Biltmore and Arden communities in South Asheville. (By the way, the piece was turned in March 19, prior to the new governmental statistics indicating an increased diagnostic prevalence of autism, from 1 in 88 overall to 1 in 68 among people 21 and under; I’ve updated the stats below, but the Biltmore Beacon piece includes the older statistics as the rate of diagnostic prevalence continues to rise with every reassessment.)

Okay, I’ve lived in the mountains since 2006 but now I’ve even been published in The Mountaineer. Long Island kid makes good …

Me and my son, Nicholas, today.
Me and my son, Nicholas, today.

April Is Autism Awareness Month — a Time for Developing Acceptance

April has been known as Autism Awareness Month since the 1970s, but many people in the autism community say it is now time the campaign evolves into Autism Acceptance Month.

One in every 68 people ages 21 and under is diagnosed as autistic in the United States, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates. Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, is even more common among boys: 1 in every 42 boys in the United States now receives this neurodevelopmental diagnosis. Diagnosed rates of autism have been rising rapidly over the past 40 years, perhaps reflecting a growing autistic population and certainly reflecting increased awareness among parents, medical professionals, and teachers about the condition and its primary indicators — resulting in more frequent recognition and diagnosis. The cause of autism is not known, but scientists suspect both genetics and environmental factors play roles.

Autism is integral to a person’s being — the way a person thinks, perceives, processes, and engages and interacts with the world. You sometimes may “see” obvious manifestations of a person’s autism. But you also may not: A person might present as “normal” — as neurologically typical — but still have gifts and challenges related to her or his autism.

While there is tremendous diversity within the autism population, autism commonly affects language and communication, social interactions, sensory processing, motor skills, and cognitive processing. Some of the most common visible signs of autism include repetitive movements, delayed speech, avoidance of eye contact, diminished affect and social responsiveness, and intensely focused interests or aversions. Some autistics have self-stimulating repetitive behaviors, such as flapping hands, rocking back and forth, or tapping fingers. About 15 to 20 percent of autistics do not develop verbal speech, and many autistics have difficulty with receptive communication — being able to process and understand what someone else is saying quickly. And, contrary to a common perception, a majority of ASD children do not have an intellectual disability, the CDC reports.

With an estimated 1 to 2 percent of the population being autistic, and public awareness of autism having grown over recent decades, the movement from awareness to acceptance and understanding becomes essential, and that starts with dialogue and engaging in conversation. What does it look like for so many people in our society — not just children but also adults — to have autism? What supports do we and should we provide autistic children and their families in schools and society? What does adult life hold for autistic people?

Autistic adults often refer to autism as a culture, rather than a condition. Autism acceptance means for this culture to be included more fully in the general culture — for neurodiversity and the acceptance of differences to become a more common part of the social fabric. You can learn more about autism acceptance at www.autismacceptancemonth.com, a site created by the Autism Self Advocacy Network. Local organizations and community resources to contact for more information about autism and autism community supports include:

Ray Hemachandra, father of a 13-year-old autistic son, blogs about autism and other topics at www.rayhemachandra.com. He is a family trainer and a support parent for the Family Support Network of Western North Carolina. He lives in Arden.


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