Here is a call to action on autism from MNOHS math teacher, board member, and family coordinator Kim Breeden.

High school has its own set of unwritten rules: how to dress, where to sit, who to talk to.  This world can be challenging for even the typical teenager to navigate.  Now imagine that you’re among the increasing number of students with autism—now estimated at 1 in 50.  Autism can impact all areas of life, including social skills.  Children and teens with autism may be unable to read facial expressions and interpret body language or social cues.  Initiating and participating in conversations may be difficult, as those with autism often can’t find the words to express their feelings.  They may instead echo an out of-context-phrase or talk only about a particular subject of interest to them.  Students with autism may also experience sensory overload where the bright lights and loud sounds of a typical school setting can become overwhelming.

For some students with autism, these social and sensory issues make school stressful, even if they have strong academic skills.  Attending school online from the comfort of their home allows these students to focus on academics without the accompanying social and sensory distractions. Students with autism may do better learning online where both technology and their teacher offer consistent support.  This online environment levels the playing field, giving students with autism the learning opportunities they deserve.

While online education can be an excellent educational opportunity, it should not be seen as a way to remove students with autism from the community.  We must work to make sure that “out of sight” does not become “out of mind.”  April is autism awareness month.  With the rising number of children diagnosed with autism, awareness is easy to come by.  Individuals with autism are regularly encountered in the community, even if their diagnosis is unrecognized.  The child in the grocery store who looks too old to be having a “temper tantrum”; the teenager who talks non-stop about computers; the co-worker who is socially awkward: these situations may be responded to differently when viewed through the lens of autism awareness.

Awareness of autism, however, is not nearly enough.  In the 6 years since my son was diagnosed with autism, I’ve watched the rates climb from 1 in 110 to 1 in 50.  Instead, I would like to declare “Autism Answers Month.”    The time has come for all of us to demand answers to the tough questions:

  • Why does the rate of autism continue to increase?  Are we ready to look beyond genetics and better diagnosing?
  • Who will pay for the intensive therapy these children need when schools have limited resources and insurance companies deny coverage?
  • How will we meet the long term needs of these children who may enter adulthood lacking the social and communication skills to live independently?
  • When will autism be viewed as a national crisis?  How many children will it take to become an epidemic?
  • What would I do if this were MY child?  How do I prevent my loved one from being next?

For those of us living and working with autism, these questions consume us.  This month, on behalf of the 1 in 50 children with autism, I ask that they consume you too.