1 in 68. 1 in 68 children in the United States have Autism. 1 in 68 children in the United States grow up to be adults with Autism. Autism, or Autism spectrum disorder, refers to a broad range of conditions, some of which, to the untrained eye, do not appear to be the result of a disability. Social skills and communication are impacted no matter where an individual falls on the spectrum, and it is important to be patient and understanding to all people who communicate differently than you might be used to. April’s Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month in Berkshire County is pushing beyond making the community aware of Autism. The goal is to advocate accepting the strengths of individuals with Autism and to make the public aware of the ways we can help them achieve their goals in society. It all starts with being mindful that someone you know or interact with could have Autism, and to be thoughtful in the ways we interact with all people, regardless of whether we are aware that they have a disability.
“Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder, refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences…. There is not one Autism but many types, caused by a combination of genetic and environmental influences.” (http://faq.Autismspeaks.org/info/faq)
“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates Autism’s prevalence as 1 in 68 children in the United States. This includes 1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls…. An estimated 50,000 teens with Autism become adults – and lose school-based Autism services – each year.” (http://faq.Autismspeaks.org/info/faq)
“Each individual with Autism is unique. Many of those with Autism have exceptional abilities in visual, music and academic skills. About 40 percent have intellectual disability (IQ less than 70), and many have normal to above average intelligence. Because the effects of Autism can vary greatly from one individual to another, individuals are considered to be “on the spectrum” depending on the degree to which they are affected by the disorder…. Asperger syndrome is one of several previously separate subtypes of Autism that were folded into the single diagnosis Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in 2013.” (http://faq.Autismspeaks.org/info/faq)
Even if a person with Autism cannot communicate in the traditional ways, they may not have an intellectual disability. You just have to learn how to communicate with them, which might mean a communication device, pictures, or iPads with communication software.
Rebecca Cachat, Behavior Specialist at Berkshire County Arc, has nearly 15 years of experience in the areas of Autism and Applied Behavior Analysis. She is also an integral part of BCARC’s Autism Outreach Services.
Rebecca believes in the popular adage by Dr. Stephen Shore, “If you’ve met one person with Autism, you’ve met one person with Autism”. “While there are characteristics, signs, and symptoms that lead to a diagnosis, they can really range”, says Cachat. “The biggest thing is to understand who they are and where they’re coming from; notice that there may be some things that might seem to affect them more or, on the opposite end, completely un-affect them…. (Some) sensory things like sounds, lights, and smells can really be upsetting to someone…. (When interacting with someone who has Autism), patience is probably the biggest thing and understanding and (feeling) ok to ask questions.”
If you work with someone who has Autism, “the biggest thing is to be aware of what it is that might bother them, being patient, (and) knowing that they really need, and this is general, but it holds true for everyone, routine and expectations”, says Cachat. “(Plan on) being very literal about things, not expecting someone to understand a joke or a figure of speech. You may have to explain those things if you are using them; and know that even if it’s just a little change in the daily routine that could be a big thing for someone and be able to support them”.
Erica Donovan is the Program Manager of the Pittsfield office of Autism Connections, the Western Mass resource center for Autism. She also leads the Autism Collaborative of Berkshire County (ACBC), which is a project that emerged from the “Go Blue” committee for Autism Awareness Month.
“The public should have some education about what Autism is and the spectrum of Autism disorder and how it would affect each person individually”, says Donovan. “The first step is being aware and being educated (and) the second step is learning some strategies to help individuals in the community that have Autism to be able to function better in the community”.
“The number one thing that Autism affects, regardless of where you are in the spectrum, is that social piece… understanding and reading social situations, understanding people’s feelings, perspective taking – being able to see the other person’s point of view. If you are aware that somebody has Autism, (knowing these things) helps you to better understand and navigate them through a conversation, or better able to help them understand what the social cue is that they should be picking up on to be able to integrate better into groups and read social situations correctly”.
Another thing that Donovan wants to stress is the fact that what may look like a behavioral issue, may in fact be a disability such as Autism. “When you can see a disability it’s much easier to accept it. It’s much easier to be compassionate about it, but when you have a disability that is unseen (such as Autism) – kids (with Autism) look just like everybody else in high school, they are in mainstream classes, they’re doing mainstream things – it’s really hard to remember that they still have a disability and how it affects their daily functioning”.
Cachat agrees, “Thinking about (situations) from this lens all the time – ‘maybe there is something going on I don’t know here’ – (is important) and offering help (instead of judgement)”.
Autism Connections is a non-profit organization that provides support, information, and practical help for individuals with Autism and their families. Their Berkshire County office is in Pittsfield at 100 North Street, Suite 322, in the Old Agricultural Bank building. The organization provides free resources and events for families, providers, and professionals.
“The call that we get the most”, says Donovan, “is ‘my child was just diagnosed (with Autism), I don’t know what to do’. The first place we like to send parents is the Department of Developmental Services (DDS)”. Once a person is determined eligible for state-funded services through DDS, they are eligible for life. DDS will help refer the person to an agency funded by the state according to their needs. A case manager can then help them build a path to where they need to be and can help make sense of all the programs and resources that are available.
These early calls are promising opportunities for Donovan, who knows that early education is the key for individuals diagnosed with Autism. If a child has access to Autism support services early in life, hopefully, they will master enough skills by the time they are an adult so that they will need less services or they may not need services at all. Many adults who were never properly diagnosed as children did not get the right supports they needed while in school and are now struggling to find their paths in their adult lives. Many Autistic adults did not receive Autism supports in their youth; many receiving supports for ADD, ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder, bipolar disorder, among others.
Education and outreach amongst organizations, schools, and the greater community is crucial so that more children who are exhibiting the characteristics of the disorder can be diagnosed with Autism early.
In response to this need in our community, The Autism Collaborative of Berkshire County meets monthly to talk about where the gaps are in Autism services, how they can fill them, and how they can get information out to the community at large on what services are available for families. These meetings are open to all families and professionals in the community.
“The Autism Collaborative of Berkshire County is a group of local Autism service providers and agencies working together to educate, advocate and raise awareness of the services available in our community to families. The collaborative works to remove communication barriers by networking, forming agency relationships and creating innovative solutions to grow the Autism Services available in our community.”
The Autism Collaborative of Berkshire County is also spearheading Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month in Berkshire County. April is celebrated around the world as Autism Awareness Month with various ‘GO BLUE’ campaigns. The goal of the Berkshire County “GO BLUE” campaign is “to heighten awareness of services available to individuals and families impacted by Autism and to celebrate the accomplishments of those with Autism”. Participating agencies include AdLib, Autism Connections, Berkshire County Arc, Berkshire Family and Individual Resources, College Internship Program, Hillcrest Educational Foundation, and United Cerebral Palsy of Berkshire County.
Downtown Pittsfield, Inc. is supporting downtown businesses in their efforts to join Berkshire County’s “GO BLUE” campaign and is working alongside the Collaborative in this initiative. Local businesses are encouraged to “GO BLUE” by decorating their window displays in blue for the month of April.
“I am encouraging downtown Pittsfield businesses to hang up blue lights”, says Downtown Pittsfield, Inc.’s Executive Director, Cheryl Mirer. “There is a discount at Carr Hardware (on blue lights) for downtown merchants, and Autism awareness postcards are available at downtown businesses. I encourage everyone to come out and attend at least one event.”
The Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) is also working with the City of North Adams to “GO BLUE”.
The kickoff event for Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month is the Autism Celebration Event and Art Show on Friday, April 6th, 5 to 7 pm, at the AdLib Center for Independent Living, located at 215 North Street. The event will feature artwork from local artists of all ages who have a disability or are on the Autism Spectrum, and there will be a special performance by students from the College Internship Program during the event. Representatives from the collaborating service organizations will be in attendance with information about services available to individuals with Autism and their families/caretakers. Light refreshments will be served. There will also be a sensory friendly room on site. Selected art pieces will be displayed in the AdLib window throughout the month as part of First Fridays Artswalk.
Cachat is a fan of the kickoff event with Artswalk and the CIP students. “Seeing people present their strengths can be good for the community – to see what someone’s good at. Because (a person with Autism is) a person first. They might be an artist, a dancer, they might be really great at computers. We want to show their strengths to the community”.
The final event will be a rally in Pittsfield’s Park Square on Friday, April 27th, from 5 to 7 pm. This fun event will celebrate and promote the accomplishments of individuals with Autism. Be sure to wear blue for Autism Awareness, and feel free to bring your own hand-held sign in support!
“(This month’s events) are geared for everyone”, says Donovan. “If you are an individual with Autism, if you are family that has someone with Autism that lives with you, if you are an educator, if you have somebody on your block that has Autism, if it’s something that just interests you – everybody is invited to these events.”
“You should come out and attend events because the more people know, the better they’re going to be able to help individuals with Autism integrate into the community”, says Cachat. “(These events are) where we build really good community relationships and how our employment services help people get jobs”.
1 in 68. Remember, 1 in 68 children living in the United States have Autism, and 1 in 68 children grow up to be adults with Autism. This is a staggering number of people affected. Even if you do not think you know anyone with Autism, these numbers suggest that you probably do. Please take the time to educate yourself on strategies to help those who experience the world differently and please show your support and acceptance of those living with Autism at one of April’s events. And most importantly, be kind to one another.
More information on the Berkshire County events for Autism Awareness and Acceptance month can be found here: http://bit.ly/AutismCollaborative
By Contributor Kimberly Gritman
Images courtesy of The Autism Collaborative of Berkshire County.