April is National Autism Awareness Month.
Realizing that New Jersey has the highest rate of autism in the country affecting 1 out of every 41 children (the national average is 1 out of every 68 children) it seems only logical that we in New Jersey need to be more fully aware of the individuals among us with autism and better come to understand this disability and the people and families that it affects.
Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences. We know that there is not one autism but many types, caused by different combinations of genetic and environmental influences.
The term “spectrum” reflects the wide variation in challenges and strengths possessed by each person with autism.
Autism’s most obvious signs tend to appear between 2 and 3 years of age. In some cases, it can be diagnosed as early as 18 months. Some development delays associated with autism can be identified and addressed even earlier. Parents with concerns should seek evaluation without delay, as early intervention can improve outcomes.
A few facts about autism:
– The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates autism’s prevalence as 1 in 68 children in the United States. This includes 1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls.
– An estimated 50,000 teens with autism become adults-and lose school-based autism services- each year.
– Around one third of people with autism remain nonverbal.
– Around one third of people with autism have an intellectual disability.
– Certain medical and mental health issues frequently accompany autism. They include gastrointestinal (GI) disorders, seizures, sleep disturbances, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety and phobias.
Let’s go beyond “awareness” this month and commit to find ways to fill needs of these children and their families. Let’s celebrate them but go beyond “celebrating” the unique talents and skills of persons with autism, by addressing this global crisis and finding ways to address their problems.
Here are some of the common problems they and their families face every day:
– 48% wander away from a safe environment.
– 91% of deaths of autistic children under 14 years of age is accidental drowning.
– They often face bullying and teasing.
– They have lower employment rates with just 55% employed during their first 6 years after high school.
– Only about 35% attend college.
So let’s more so be committed to turn our awareness into action and seek ways to support efforts through our generosity and compassion to address these and other problems that our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters with autism and their families face every day. Become educated about autism, advocate for and support causes that assist families and promote further research. Support social programs that can make autistic people’s lives happier, healthier and safer.
Let’s also strongly advocate at our local parishes for “Inclusion Masses” to be celebrated weekly or monthly. These masses invite and welcome persons on the autism spectrum to come and celebrate Mass as a family. To participate in and fully share in the banquet of Christ’s sacrifice and love. The Liturgy is slightly modified to address the unique needs of persons with autism spectrum disorder, minimizing abrupt sounds of bells, keeping the music soft, and limiting the Scripture readings and homilies to be more in line with shortened attention spans. And by active participation of the child with autism in the gift bearing and/or greeting, these Masses bring the entire parish community to a heightened awareness and renewed relationship with their members that have previously stayed away from such public celebrations of their faith due to the varying degrees of autism spectrum disorder expression by their children and their lack of being welcomed into their faith community gatherings.
This month, in particular, let us pray that our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters and their families may experience the peace and love of Jesus made manifest to them through the generosity, hospitality, and advocacy of their faith communities as they struggle daily with the challenges of autism spectrum disorder.
By Deacon Jerry Jablonowski, Executive Director
VITALity Catholic Healthcare Services