Apr 13, 2021 Shifting from Autism Awareness to Acceptance

Tara Matthews, MD, Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, Children’s Specialized Hospital, an RWJBarnabas Health facility and leader in research for treatment and diagnosis of autism.

Dr. Tara MatthewsApril has long been recognized as Autism Awareness Month, but this year, experts and advocates are calling for a shift from using “Awareness” to “Acceptance” to foster change and inclusivity for the 1 in 32 children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in New Jersey.

Autism spectrum disorder or autism is a neurobiological disorder characterized by impairments in social communication and interaction as well as restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior. Individuals with autism typically have difficulty interacting with others. This can include difficulty with building relationships, using language, regulating their emotions, and understanding others’ points of view.

The shift to Autism Acceptance Month aims to ignite change through improved support and opportunities in education, employment, affordable health care, comprehensive long-term services and more. Furthermore, it challenges non-autistic people to address their own implicit and explicit bias that they may have about autism.

Acceptance: Key in Helping Kids with Autism Reach Their Full Potential

There is no known single cause of autism spectrum disorder but early diagnosis and intervention along with access to appropriate services and support can lead to significantly improved outcomes. Additionally, new research shows that an increased understanding of autism can help improve social interactions amongst those on the spectrum. Many children on the spectrum struggle to connect and communicate with their peers.

Social skills programs and therapies can be effective in helping them navigate personal interactions, but the study found that promoting understanding and acceptance among people who are not on the spectrum can also be key factors in improving social interactions and fostering personal relationships for individuals with autism.

Improving understanding and acceptance of autism can help improve social inclusion for autistic people. Traditionally many of the therapies and interventions to support social skills development for individuals with autism focus on them learning new behaviors. In some cases, kids on the spectrum may also try to hide their symptoms to better fit in with their peers by suppressing autistic traits and urges. This can prove to be harmful and, in some cases, can result in delays in proper diagnoses and treatments. Increased autism training and knowledge can lead to more inclusive attitudes toward autistic people and to wider acceptance and better outcomes.

Socializing and playing with others can be challenging for autistic children, but parents of neurotypical children (those who do not have a diagnosis of autism or any other intellectual or developmental difference) can help. Parents can:

  • Lead by example and encourage interactions with children on the spectrum. Making the first approach can be hard for children, let alone a child with autism, but if you make the first step to say hi, the children might follow suit.
  • Encourage your child to play games with less talking and more action. Games with lots of rules and set up that requires a lot of conversation can be overwhelming to children with autism.
  • Encourage constructive play where children build or make things. Some children with ASD excel at skills like puzzles, Legos or drawing.
  • Understand that change and transitions can be hard for a child with ASD so don’t be too quick to change activities.
  • Above all, keep an open mind.

Recognizing Autism

This Autism Acceptance Month I encourage everyone to educate themselves on autism to further help break the social stigma individuals with autism and particularly kids experience. Parents are also encouraged to know and learn the signs of autism and if they are concerned about their child’s development to schedule an evaluation as soon as possible. ASD is a multifaceted disorder of communication and social skills, but there can also be the presence of some unusual behaviors– repetitive movements like hand flapping, repetitive verbalization or just the need for sameness. Other behaviors associated with ASD include:

  • Delay or lack of verbal and non-verbal communication
  • Failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level
  • Impairment of non-verbal behaviors such as eye to eye gaze, facial expression, body posture and gestures to regulate social interaction
  • Preference to be alone, difficulty interacting / socializing with others
  • Lack of social and / or emotional reciprocity
  • Impairment in the ability to initiate or sustain conversation
  • Lack of “play” or make-believe play
  • Obsessive attachment to objects, persistent preoccupation with parts of objects
  • Spinning, rocking, hand flapping or twisting and / or other self-stimulating behaviors.
  • Difficulty with executive functioning – working memory, flexible thinking and self-control
  • Narrow, intense interests
  • Poor motor skills

A person on the spectrum might follow many of these behaviors or just a few, and there are many besides these. If parents notice any of these behaviors, it is best to discuss them with their pediatrician to determine if a formal evaluation is needed.

Early diagnosis and intervention coupled with a greater acceptance and awareness of autism are key in helping kids on the spectrum reach their full potential. For more information on the Children’s Specialized Hospital’s Autism Program, evaluation and Early Intervention Program, please visit rwjbh.org/cshautism and for information on Children’s Specialized Hospital’s free developmental screenings, please visit rwjbh.org/cshdevelopmentalscreenings.