The Anderson Center for Autism recently had an opportunity to speak with parents whose children are residents at the center. Here are their experiences.
April is Autism Awareness Month. Like several other months throughout the year that honor various causes, it begs the question: What does it mean to be aware, anyway? For us, the goals are threefold.
First, we want to educate the public about autism spectrum disorder. Many parents of children with autism describe the initial diagnosis as confusing, in large part because autism presents in a variety of ways depending on the individual. A neurological disorder, it comes with numerous and complex communication, social, and behavioral challenges. Some folks with autism are completely nonverbal and engage in severe, self-injurious behavior; they may need full-time residential placement and one-on-one staff assistance 24/7. Other people on the spectrum are so high-functioning one would never know they had received the diagnosis. Perhaps they have difficulty understanding expressions and metaphors or challenges recognizing social cues, but they work, go to college, get married, and have families of their own.
We also want our community to understand that incidence rates have been rising over the past few decades, which means we have much to do to support people with autism (and their families). According to the Centers for Disease Control, 1 in 68 are now diagnosed, which means that most of us know someone with autism (whether we realize it or not). That said, it’s critical that as a community, we support the development and continued expansion of programs and services for this population — and do all we can to optimize the quality of life for people impacted. That might mean engaging in volunteer opportunities, advocating for fair pay for direct support professionals, or making financial contributions. It might mean pursuing training to become an autism supportive environment (we’ve trained dozens of Hudson Valley businesses and organizations already due in part to funding available through the County’s Think Differently initiative). Or, it might mean simply reaching out to loved ones caring for someone with autism to lend a hand when they are feeling most depleted.
Lastly, for all of us at Anderson Center for Autism, raising awareness is about promoting a culture of tolerance, acceptance and compassion. Not only to make people with autism feel more included, but for their families to feel connected as well. One of the most frequent frustrations we hear from parents of people with autism is that when they are out in public and their child becomes overstimulated, which can manifest in some kind of unusual behavior, others tend to glare, scrutinize and seem to pass judgement. This response to families who are already under tremendous stress just compounds their level of heartache and can result in them choosing to isolate themselves completely. The byproducts of that isolation are not good for anyone. By being more aware of the fact that this child might be acting out because he or she simply cannot process the sensory stimuli that are barely noticeable to the rest of us — and going a step further, by asking those parents what we can do to help when their children seem totally overwhelmed — our roles become supportive. And we can take that a step further by supporting the work of agencies in the field so that those with Autism enjoy the same opportunities for high quality of life that we all deserve to experience.
In honor of Autism Awareness Month (April), this year we have several galleries hosting art shows for our residents. Crunch Fitness is spearheading a 5K run to benefit our programs. Mill House Brewing Company is inviting lovers of craft beer to its venue to experience this year’s Mr. Anderson Ale, a brew produced in honor of our history in the field of serving people with special needs. Local Rotary clubs and radio hosts have invited our team to speak about autism.
Some of these events will raise funds that directly benefit our programs. Some allow us an opportunity to educate the public about what life is like for the 1 in 68 diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Some give us a chance to expand our sphere of influence. All of these community partnerships raise awareness that will help catapult us to greater success in our quest to optimize the quality of life for people with autism.
Awareness is the critical starting point; the place where momentum begins. After all, when we are aware, we feel a greater sense of responsibility to our fellow humans. By understanding what people with autism need, we are positioned to better honor basic human rights. As a community, let’s continue to get behind the legislation that supports fair pay for direct support professionals. Let’s get behind the initiatives that fund training for businesses and organizations so that they can become autism supportive environments. Let’s get behind the events that help bridge the gap between financial needs and resources. Let’s get behind the programs in place for people with special needs. Let’s get behind the families whose challenges are unique and deserve greater attention. And let’s raise awareness by creating opportunities for dialogue. Becoming more aware as a community — and plugging into that awareness — is a win for all of us.