For almost 50 years now, schools have taken the month of April to join families affected by autism in celebrating and promoting Autism Awareness. First held in 1972, Autism Awareness Month (AAM) facilitates greater public acceptance, celebrates the differences, and helps foster a more inclusive environment for the roughly 5,437,988 autistic adults and 1 in 44 children in the United States with the condition. Through education, many advocates will use the month of April to act on behalf of the autistic people in their lives and lobby for better services, for equal treatment, and for taking a personalized approach to individuals with ASD.
If you don’t know much about autism spectrum disorder (ASD), April is the perfect time for you to learn more about ASD, and about how you can be a better ally to those with autism and their families.
What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Autism spectrum disorder is simply a different way of thinking that is characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication. It is a condition that individuals are born with and that affects all races, ethnic groups, socioeconomic levels, and genders. More importantly, autism is a spectrum. Conditions that were once diagnosed separately from autism disorder, such as Asperger Syndrome and PDD-NOS, now all fall under the umbrella of the autism spectrum.
One of the biggest challenges with understanding autism is that ASD presents differently in each individual. Yes, there are broadly defined main types, but there’s incredible diversity within the spectrum. Parents, teachers, and schools have to approach autistic children as individuals rather than as just a collection of characteristics.
So, kids with autism require more than awareness from educators; they need autism acceptance and advocacy. Here’s what one autistic student found during her online schooling experience at Connections Academy®.
How Autism Affects Kids in Traditional Schools
Kathryn is an online high school student now enrolled in a Connections Academy-supported school. She and her family were looking for a more supportive school placement. The sensory overload of a traditional classroom setting was overwhelming.
“Between the fluorescent lights, noises, and other distractions, it was impossible for her to learn,” said Kathryn’s mother.
Many students with ASD experience sensory processing issues in traditional classroom settings, similar to those that Kathryn’s mother described. The overwhelming sensations caused by these settings can lead to school avoidance, acting-out behaviors, depression, poor self-esteem, and negative impacts on school performance and social relationships. Even though traditional public schools can accommodate special needs, the ambient sounds in a school building can be a difficult issue to solve if your child is affected by them.
Similar to autism awareness resources for homeschooling, online education can also provide strategies for supporting students where they need it most.
“Connections Academy gave my daughter the ability to learn from home without distractions,” Kathryn’s mother added. “At the same time, she has access to teachers who are always available to help when she needs it. Kathryn is doing well at Falcon View Connections Academy. The schedule flexibility that comes with attending an online school gives her the chance to focus on her writing, as she spends a lot of time writing poetry.”
Education Support Tips for Parents with Autistic Children
Crowdsource Your Efforts. For parents, the best part of Autism Awareness Month might be being reminded that they are not alone. Especially these days, everyone wants to share what’s working. So, take advantage of the resources that reputable organizations share.
Make a Schedule and Stick to It. Children benefit greatly from consistent schedules, and none more so than those with ASD. Use this resource to help you create a schedule for your child. But be realistic. Not every minute of every day needs to be accounted for. Schedule short blocks of schoolwork that your child can get used to and don’t forget some time to get outside.
Have a Designated Learning Space. Like brick-and-mortar schools that have the kinds of triggers that Kathryn’s mother described, your home can be filled with potential, unintended distractions.
To mitigate that issue, simply designate a specific area for online learning.
Use Hyperfocus to Your Advantage. It is true that being on the autism spectrum can make it hard
for your child to ignore distractions, but the flip side is that it can also cause them to concentrate so intensely on one thing, they block out almost everything else. So, if that sounds like your child, use that to your advantage by structuring your daily activities around that subject.
Find out which hooks incite interests in new subjects then focus on them—and don’t forget: For kids on the autism spectrum, having options and choices can be empowering. If you give them some control over their routines, that can go a long way toward keeping their interest focused on learning.
Finally, Should It Be Autism “Acceptance” Instead of Autism “Awareness”?
Unlike many other “awareness” campaigns you’re familiar with, the framing of Autism Awareness Month (AAM) isn't universally agreed upon within the autistic community. Now, there’s no doubt that the month is important, as more autism information will be shared via social media, rallies will strengthen the autism community’s communal bonds, and donations to autism-related charities will spike. It will help spread awareness of the various challenges and celebrate the differences of families affected by autism.
However, that isn’t the whole story. You see, because people affected by autism invite and even depend on anticipation from outside affected communities, such awareness drives can also facilitate the widespread dissemination of bad information or outdated perspectives on autism, resulting in difficulties for families in the community.
Christopher Banks, President and CEO of the Autism Society, explained his perspective on “Awareness” vs. “Acceptance” this way: “While we will always work to spread awareness, words matter as we strive for autistic individuals to live fully in all areas of life. As many individuals and families affected by autism know, acceptance is often one of the biggest barriers to finding and developing a strong support system.”
No one can tell you which AAM you should prefer, but whether it’s awareness or acceptance, we can all agree that the month of April should be a time to come together, celebrate diversity, and push for change.