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Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by deficits in social communication and interaction, as well as restricted interests and repetitive behaviors. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 54 children in the U.S. has ASD. Over the years, many organizations have advocated for the month of April to be designated as Autism Awareness Month.
With this advocacy effort, ASD has received quite a bit of media attention, and the general public is now much more aware that ASD exists. However, there continues to be a gap between educating communities on ASD and accepting and including individuals with ASD in our communities. Therefore, many self-advocates, their families and professionals are advocating to change Autism Awareness Month to Autism Acceptance Month.
To support this effort, our team at Texas Children’s Autism Center has provided several actionable steps that we can all implement to encourage acceptance and inclusion of individuals with ASD within our communities.
- Diversify your child’s bookshelf. Many parents strive to create an inclusive bookshelf by selecting books with characters of differing races, ethnicities, religions and genders. While this is an excellent start, it is also important to include books that focus on varying abilities, such as ASD. Reading books that celebrate characters from diverse backgrounds is the perfect way for parents to engage their children in conversations about acceptance and inclusion of differences from a very young age. Two books that focus specifically on ASD are A Friend for Henry and All My Stripes.
- Instead of dismissing, try educating. Most parents have been in an awkward situation in a public setting where their child stares at someone who looks different from them or behaves differently from what they typically see. It is completely normal to want to tell your child to stop staring or be quiet because the situation makes you feel uncomfortable. Instead of dismissing your child’s reaction, use this as an opportunity to educate your child about differences and build understanding. If you see a child with ASD, engage in motor and/or vocal stereotypy such as spinning in circles while humming repetitively, you could say, “Sometimes people do different things when they’re feeling different emotions. It looks like she’s feeling happy. What do you do when you feel happy?”
- Offer support through advocacy. While children with ASD are often able to receive support at school either through special education services or 504 accommodations, the same supports are not necessarily guaranteed in the community, such as extracurricular activities (e.g., baseball games or birthday parties) or places of worship (e.g., churches, mosques, synagogues, etc.). If you see that another parent is trying to advocate for accommodations for their child with ASD, such as creating a sensory-friendly religious service, then have their back. This means offering support through listening to them and learning from them, as well as personally reaching out to the individuals in charge who can make accommodations happen.
- Use language appropriate to the individual. While person-first language (e.g., “person with ASD”) is commonly used among professionals and parents, many self-advocates within the ASD community prefer identity-first language (e.g., “autistic person”) as they view ASD as something that cannot and should not be separated from their identity. There is much debate about what terminology to use; however, it is important to use language most appropriate to an individual with ASD in order to show acceptance of their individual identity. This could mean asking individuals or their family members what language they find to be the most respectful and appropriate.
- Focus on strengths, not just challenges. Though many children and adults with ASD face challenges, it is important to identify and recognize the strengths that also accompany ASD. For instance, many individuals with ASD exhibit highly focused interests, such as technology or animals, which could make it difficult to form and maintain relationships if these interests dominate their lives. However, if that individual can participate in an activity or group that involves that interest, it becomes a pathway to form friendships. Further, that individual might pursue employment in line with their interests, promoting individual self-determination. Focusing on the unique abilities of an individual will strengthen their sense of self and achievement.
- Expand your social circle. Many children with ASD are socially excluded from a very young age because they engage in behaviors that that are viewed as falling outside societal norms. Expanding you and your child’s network of friendships and activities to include individuals with different abilities, such as ASD, is not only the kind thing to do, but it can also provide opportunities for you and your child to connect with and learn from others from different backgrounds and experiences. This in turn broadens perspectives of the world and teaches open-mindedness to new ideas, beliefs, and values. This includes learning that differing abilities are, as Dr. Temple Grandin has famously said, “different, not less.”
- Provide meaningful opportunities for individuals with ASD to be included. Beyond inviting individuals with ASD to social gatherings, you can make a difference by helping to promote and create opportunities to include teens and adults with ASD in the workplace. As noted in President Biden’s Proclamation on World Autism Awareness Day, the Department of Labor’s recent apprenticeship initiative focuses on developing career paths in information technology, healthcare, and other fields for individuals with ASD and other developmental disabilities. Talk to your employer about why it is important to employ differently-abled individuals and how your workplace can do a better job of recruiting, supporting and retaining individuals with ASD as valuable team members.
The Autism Center at Texas Children's focuses on the care of children who have or who are suspected of having ASD. Click here to learn more about our Center and the programs and services we provide to our patients and their families.