Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Recognizing World Autism Day

by JENNIFER CORK/Guest Opinion
| April 2, 2021 1:00 AM

Today is World Autism Awareness Day, which has taken place annually on April 2 since it was adopted by the United Nations in 2007. As someone who works closely with individuals on the autism spectrum, this day has very special meaning to me and I agree with many individuals that awareness alone is not enough. In the fall of 2019, I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Stephen Shore speak about the 4 A’s of autism: Awareness, Acceptance, Appreciation, and Action. Dr. Shore has a doctorate in special education, is a professor at Adelphi University, and is on the spectrum himself. He feels that as important as awareness is, it is just a first step. On this, the 14th World Autism Awareness Day, I would like to share my journey through the 4 A’s of autism.

Awareness. When I finished my bachelor’s degree in elementary education at the University of Idaho in December 2004, I knew very little about autism spectrum disorder. I felt like it took very special people to work with individuals with disabilities and that I was not one of them. Six months later I found myself starting a job in the life skills classroom in a middle school. My anxiety was through the roof that first day and I felt grossly underprepared, despite my teacher training. What I quickly found out was that the kids in that classroom were just plain kids. They may not have been at the same developmental level as many of their peers, but they wanted what all kids want: love, acceptance, friends, fun, and they absolutely did not want to do their school work. I loved that job and it wasn’t because I was one of those special people who could work with individuals with disabilities, but because I had wanted to work with kids and I was working with kids.

Acceptance. Those first few years after graduating from college, I learned a lot about autism and other disabilities. I also learned about the concept of neurodiversity, or the idea that disabilities are just a variant of typical development and not a thing to be cured. As we look back at history and make guesses about who may have been on the autism spectrum, like Mozart and Einstein, we can see that these individuals are an important part of human diversity. Most individuals with autism will not be Einstein, but they are often out-of-the-box thinkers. They are often problem solvers, great at paying attention to details, creative, excellent rule followers, great at keeping routines, and have much to offer the rest of us.

Appreciation. As I moved from education to behavioral services and then eventually to working in mental health as a clinical social worker, I learned and continue to learn to appreciate autism and other disabilities more and more each day. A majority of the clients on my caseload have developmental disabilities like autism, ADHD, or intellectual disabilities, along with mental health diagnoses like anxiety and depression. I appreciate my clients’ frankness and I find it much easier to talk about difficult subjects with individuals on the spectrum than I do those without because they want me to be frank as well. I love their passion for specific areas of interest and often come home announcing that I have to watch some anime or learn about computer technology I am not familiar with so I don’t sound like an idiot to a new client. I enjoy having an office full of sensory tools because then I can play with them too. I also brag to my colleagues that my clients are better at regular attendance than theirs are and I have the data to prove it.

Action. This brings me to the last A, which is action. In my professional career, I have been able to take a lot of direct action in supporting individuals in the community with autism spectrum disorder both through my work and my volunteer work, but you don’t need to make a career out of it to take action in supporting this cause. With about 1 in 54 children in the United States being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, most of us know someone on the spectrum. Action can be including your classmate on the spectrum out on the playground during recess. Action can be saying hello to the individual with autism who comes into your workplace and greeting them by name. Action can be offering empathy and help to the parent with a child who is having a sensory meltdown in the grocery store. Action can be contributing to one of our great local nonprofits that support individuals with autism such as the Panhandle Autism Society or Specialized Needs Recreation. Action can be any number of ways that includes being kind to others.

So today, on World Autism Awareness Day, to all of the neurotypicals out there, I encourage you to think about where you are on your journey through the 4 A’s of Autism and keep going! Our world is not set up to fully include individuals with autism comfortably, but it could be. For more information about how to do this, reach out to one of the organizations mentioned above, talk to your child’s teacher, or to the person you know on the spectrum. Also, keep in mind one of my favorite quotes by Dr. Stephen Shore, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”

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Jennifer Cork is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Autism Specialist at Big Lake Psychological Services in Coeur d'Alene.