With April being National Autism Awareness Month, it is important to understand the trials of being on the autism spectrum in modern times. As more research surrounding autism spectrum disorders is released, it becomes clear that continuing to exclude autistic people from holding jobs or being independent hampers global progress and only serves to oppress a group of people who may not be so different from us after all. With the right resources, autistic people can thrive and succeed in modern society.
The Center for Disease Control’s website defines autism spectrum disorder as "a group of developmental disabilities" affecting its members’ social, communication, and behavioral skills. The website goes on to specify that genetics, conditions before, during and after pregnancy, and the parents’ age seem to be the biggest causes of ASD. About one in 68 children from all races, ethnicities and socioeconomic levels are diagnosed somewhere on the spectrum, with boys being 4.5 times more likely to receive a diagnosis. Those with ASD range anywhere from "gifted to severely challenged."
Along with many other characteristics, people on the autism spectrum can often have trouble understanding feelings in general, avoid eye contact, do or say things repetitively and have difficulty with transition and change. There is no single medical test to diagnose ASD and there is no cure. However, studies show early recognition and behavioral and educational intervention can have a profound effect on an autistic child’s development and skill levels as they age.
Though the brains of people with ASD process information differently, high-functioning people with autism are no different than the rest of us. Peers with autism can become lifelong friends and, in my experience, can be some of the most outstanding people one will ever know. However, because they are often misunderstood, they have faced ignorance and discrimination to the point of needing to form a civil rights movement of their own.
Thirty-five percent of college-aged people with autism have never had a job or received any education after leaving high school and, according to two studies featured in US News from HealthDay in September 2013, only 17 percent of adults ages 21-25 with autism had ever lived on their own. In April of last year, the United Nations News Centre reported in an article titled "Marking Autism Awareness Day, UN officials call for inclusive societies" that staggering statistics like these prompted the Secretary-General of the U.N., Ban Ki-moon, to use last year’s World Autism Awareness Day to call on businesses to look at people’s talents rather than their challenges and to reiterate the right of those with autism to work on an equal level with others. In this year’s address, Ban said inclusive practices were necessary and shunning those with autism not only violates their civil rights, but is a "waste of human potential."
Unfortunately, closed-minded businesses and countries are not the only populations who shun, neglect or flat-out abuse autistic people. A pair of adjunct professors of law at the William and Mary School of Law, Pete and Pam Wright, have a comprehensive website called WrightsLaw.com, which focuses on those with disabilities. The site features various articles about the laws concerning disability rights and examples of case law resulting from suits filed over the last 10-20 years. Skimming the website’s archives reveals one case after another of school districts and children’s programs with no policy to educate or care for kids with autism.
In every instance, parents seem to fight back and eventually pull their kids from the school in favor of private placement, where their children can get the help they need. They also consistently win lawsuits surrounding tuition reimbursements, all because educators didn’t hire the employees necessary to properly teach or care for children with autism.
The good news is that, over the years, the number of neurodiversity programs and organizations to help families with autism has grown exponentially, and the voices of support have gotten louder and more powerful. Writer Steve Silberman, who also addressed the U.N. during this year’s World Awareness Day, sought to remind able-minded folk of the bleak history of misdiagnosing and institutionalizing people with autism in his book, "NeuroTribes." He also stressed the mantra of Temple Grandin, an autistic woman who revolutionized the food processing industry: Different, not less.
Though the past says otherwise, people with autism have much to offer in potential careers and should not be discriminated against. Most importantly, more resources should be available in public schools so autistic children can receive the behavioral training they need to succeed at living a normal life once they reach adulthood. Such a widespread disorder deserves more societal accommodation—the well-being of those with autism depend on