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April provides opportunity for increasing community awareness and acceptance of people with autism

Jonathan Roberts • Apr 25, 2019 at 5:55 PM

April is called Autism Awareness Month, but a local college student wants to go beyond raising awareness to fostering acceptance for a disorder that’s growing more common.

With autism, officially known as autism spectrum disorder, rates on the rise, it’s become more important to raise awareness than ever before. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates one in 59 children will be diagnosed with autism, up from just one in 150 in 2000, making it the fastest-growing developmental disability.

One in 64 Tennessee children will be diagnosed with autism, with boys 4.7 times more likely to develop the disorder than girls. In Tennessee, 1.6% have autism spectrum disorder — slightly lower than the national figure of 1.7%.

Autism can be diagnosed as early as age 2, but the CDC says it’s often not diagnosed until around 4 years of age. Jo Cullen, principal of the Jeremiah School — a school designed specifically for those with developmental disabilities in Johnson City — says Autism Awareness Month is “essential” for helping bridge the gap between those with autism and those who may not understand the challenges autism presents.

“It’s very important that people in the community understand the nature of autism and the challenges it brings and also the skills that those with autism (possess),” said Cullen.

Malikai Bass, an autistic student at East Tennessee State University, agrees it’s “really important” to have a time that acknowledges and celebrates autistic people and their needs.

But while it’s “Autism Awareness Month,” the true goal — as Bass says — is acceptance.

“I say Autism Acceptance Month myself, because awareness isn’t enough,” said Bass. “A lot of awareness campaigns are not run by, or for, autistic people and don’t share messages that represent the viewpoint of the autistic community.”

Cullen noted that of all developmental disabilities, autism has the lowest rate of employment — despite CDC estimates that 44% of those with autism have average to above-average intelligence, putting the onus on the community to change that.

ETSU also has programs designed to help, and include, those with autism and other developmental disorders. Many are led by Cynthia Chambers, professor and graduate coordinator of special education at ETSU, who says the programs are “all about inclusion” and “showcasing the gifts and talents of those with disabilities.”

“It is so important [to have those programs],” said Bass. “A lot of autistic kids have mental health problems — not because they are autistic, but because of the way we are treated by society — all kids need to know that they are valued and welcome in our community.”

While Chambers and Cullen say there’s been a lot of progress, something Bass agrees with to an extent, all say there’s still more work to be done, with the most important steps being to increase education and understanding.

“Communities need to have a widespread understanding and appreciation for people of all abilities,” said Chambers. “Law enforcement and first responders [also] need mandatory training on working specifically with individuals with autism to understand the signs and common behaviors of someone with autism.”

Chambers also recommends people who don’t have experience speaking to people with disabilities should get to know somebody with one. Cullen, meanwhile, suggests that not judging people with autism, educating yourself and supporting local charities are other important steps towards true acceptance.

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