This past month, April, is recognized as Autism Awareness Month, which is dedicated to celebrating differences and raising awareness about living with autism. As we step into the coming months, it's important to continue the awareness-raising done in the past few weeks.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 68 children (1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls) will be born each year having the diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). What is it that makes these individuals so unique? And better yet, how can we as a society embrace and accommodate their needs? As children with this diagnosis are becoming adults, how do we make sure they are a productive part of our communities?
These are big questions that have a lot to do with society at large and can't be solved overnight. The best way for a true difference to be made is through campaigns like Autism Awareness Month, and for individuals to gain a better understanding, so that society can also move forward.
With this in mind, let's take a look at some of the differences that are evident for people living with autism to enable greater awareness and understanding.
One of the earliest signs of autism is a difference in social skill abilities, or lack thereof. The ability to make eye contact, communicate, speak, play, or engage in joint attention (such as mimicking what others do) is in most cases depleted, or at least not very strong, for those living with autism.
For some, using communication tools like phones, iPads, and communication boards can help, but for others even those tools are not helpful. Even so, an electronic device used for communication is void of certain face to face attributes and does not open a connection or what we know as real human interaction.
There are many instances where animals can assist in this area. Having a pet can open dialog, provide comfort, and help engage. One thing for sure is that these human interactive qualities are not usually innate in those with sensory differences and must be taught.
Social skills classes or one-on-one therapies can make a tremendous difference in the ability to socialize, as can focused groups like specialized summer programs, or summer camps. Having these experiences can make the difference between being isolated and having a social network.
Perhaps it's due to differences in muscle tone or maybe just living with a uniquely different brain, but frequently individuals with autism have difficulty with motor planning, coordination, and balance activities. This may also create a separation in social abilities, and feelings of low self-esteem.
However, adapted physical education, physical therapy, or specialized training/classes in sports such as rock climbing, swimming, biking, skiing, or hiking can provide the movement that is crucial to overall well-being. Movement acts like a sensory filter, reducing extraneous movements like hand flapping and raising endorphin levels. Individuals with autism can often learn to do just about any activity with the right patience and support.
We all struggle with it at some time in our lives, but for those on the autism spectrum it can be a moment-to-moment struggle. Learning to regulate emotion can take a team and family approach that includes looking for signs of emotional instability and learning to catch emotional outbursts before they occur.
Using emotional regulation tools such as a multisensory room, a visual tracker that displays emotional feelings, or regular therapy and medication can help individuals regulate and become aware of their emotional needs.
Many individuals on the autism spectrum engage in stimming, or self-stimulatory behavior. Stimming describes repetitive movements that stimulate the brain. Some people argue that stimming is beneficial and can help people with autism or Asperger's syndrome to focus. Others say that it needs to be somewhat regulated, as there is the potential for certain types of stimming to be damaging.
For people who engage in stimming, it can be a regulator for both understimulation and overstimulation. For example, if someone was feeling understimulated, stimming can help them fully feel parts of their body when perhaps they couldn't before. In situations where there might be too much going on, this may lead someone to feel overstimulated. Stimming, in this case, can help to relax and focus.
A multisensory room can be of great help here, as they have many benefits. Multisensory rooms help provide the right level of stimulation for people with autism and can be both calming and focusing.
How to Help: Fundraising and Increasing Awareness
Raising awareness and acceptance of autism is a continuous process. Most people know autism exists, so the phrase 'raising awareness' means helping people understand autism to a greater degree. This can be done through informative pieces like online articles and news pieces, as well as work done in the community by businesses, charities, and other organizations.
Money generated through fundraising is a fantastic resource for many public institutions, as many autism charities circulate funds and grants into schools, libraries, and care facilities. This means that there is greater access to learning and social support for people in schools, and career development skills for teenagers and adults with autism.
Charities use money raised to help on a far-reaching scale. Money raised from donations to the Autism Society, for example, help to maintain national resource databases and to raise public awareness of everyday issues that autistic people face.
The ultimate aim for all of this is to have a fully supportive society for people with autism. It's the little things that matter. AMC Theatres runs regular sensory-friendly screenings, where the lights are up, and the sound is turned down, and people are encouraged to interact with the movie. This allows people with autism or Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) to enjoy movies in an accessible environment.
So, as Autism Awareness Month has come to an end we remember that it is not just for the month of April that we need to focus on celebrating differences, but every month. Continue to bring awareness and understanding of Autism the whole year round.