ONE IN 68.
That’s the latest statistic from the Center from Disease Control, which estimates one in 68 American children have been identified with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD.) It’s a condition that covers a wide range of symptoms and crosses all ethnic and economic boundaries. ASD is almost five times more prevalent in boys than girls.
Those numbers translate to a grim reality: Most of us already know someone whose child has been diagnosed with autism, Asperger’s or other developmental disorder. More are being recognized every day.
In addition to the political, medical and social controversies that the ASD epidemic has brought to the spotlight, the most important issue for families affected by ASD—and the rest of society—is what happens when those children grow up. While some have symptoms so severe they require a lifetime of care, others with ASD encompass many levels of functionality and don’t have to be limited by their disabilities.
The latter are the focus of the 2016 Autism Conference, Feb. 11-12 at the Coastal Georgia Center.
Hosted by the Matthew Reardon Center for Autism, the two-day conference invites parents, caregivers, educators and emergency response workers to learn about ways to help teens and young adults with ASD navigate the world. Sessions include an introduction to person-centered planning, a workshop on sexuality and a panel discussion on life after high school.
“It’s easy to assume someone is their behaviors and forget that there is a normal, developing person behind the diagnosis,” says Faye Montgomery, MRCA’s director of advocacy.
“We want to provide the strategies and tools for transitioning to adulthood and empower these young people to have a fulfilling life.”
The conference also aims to educate the community, particularly in the area of law enforcement and emergency response. People on the autism spectrum often shut down when confronted by unfamiliar faces or surroundings, leading to miscommunication and possible conflict. Encouraging awareness and further training among police and other public safety entities can help prevent problems like the incident on Tybee Island in 2010, when officers mistook the autism behaviors of 18 year-old Clifford Grevemberg for intoxication and disorderly conduct and subdued him with a Taser.
In addition to providing learning opportunities, the weekend packs major star power with keynote speaker Dr. Temple Grandin, best-selling author, activist and animal welfare advocate. Diagnosed with autism at the age of four, Grandin spent her early years isolated because of her delayed speech and social skills, but her parents and teachers recognized the keen mind behind the behaviors. She went on to invent a “hug machine” that relieved the sensory overload experienced by those with autism and revolutionized the meat industry with her compassionate redesign of slaughterhouses.
Grandin encourages early intervention and support for children with ASD as well as the recognition of hidden talents—and how those talents can become marketable skills. Grandin believes there are untapped contributions to be made by those on the spectrum and promotes the concept of “neurodiversity.” As she puts it in her widely-viewed TED talk, “the world needs all types of minds.”
Conference participants can meet Grandin at the Friday afternoon session, and the public can purchase $20 tickets for the community event Friday evening at 7pm.
With so many people with ASD coming of age, attitudes towards these differently-abled citizens may be slowing shifting. Last month a video went viral of Toronto teenager named Sam who holds down his job at Starbucks in spite of his autism-related movement disorder. Also known as “the Dancing Barista,” Sam works closely with his manager to perform his tasks and has garnered an appreciative online following.
While progress has been made in the arenas of awareness and advocacy, it takes resources to help people with autism not only to become contributors to society but to believe that they are. The Matthew Reardon Center for Autism has worked locally to provide resources and support for those with ASD and their families for the past 15 years and operates the only year-round day school in southeast Georgia, teaching skills and self-management strategies.
“For so long, people with disabilities were pushed to the margins. We’re just coming out of de-institutionalization, and now we’re trying to open up the pathways,” explains Montgomery.
She refers to the term “social role valorization” and advocates that regardless of ability, everyone has the right to “the good things in life,” like friendship, meaningful work and access. In order for the hundreds of thousands of people living with ASD to claim that right, society must recognize their capabilities instead of their differences.
“This population is part of Savannah, part of our lives, and they cannot be ignored,” continues Montgomery.
“Let’s start by giving them the tools to move forward.” cs
Dr. Temple Grandin