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GFWC Commemorating Autism Awareness Month

April 3, 2017

BY VALERIE LENTZ

It is my great pleasure to write for GFWC during the month of April, Autism Awareness Month, also known as Autism Acceptance Month since simple awareness is not the goal. Rather, the goal is to create a community of inclusion and acceptance for people of all abilities and differences. It’s something I feel truly passionate about. At Easterseals Joliet Region I have had the amazing opportunity to work with and learn from individuals with autism. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a lifelong condition that affects 1 in every 68 children in the U.S., according to the Center for Disease Control. It is a neurodevelopmental disorder with clearly defined diagnostic symptoms including persistent difficulty with social interaction and communication, as well as rigid or repetitive behaviors. If you aren’t familiar with the diagnostic criteria for ASDs please view the Easterseals’ ASD Fact Sheet.

However, the saying is “if you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism”. The saying conveys that autism is a complex condition that presents with varying symptoms, severity, onset, and course. I’ve always suspected the true message is that autism does not dictate who a person is.  They are a unique individual with strengths, quirks, and preferences that may or may not have anything to do with having autism. Understanding the symptoms that define autism is very important, and understanding that autism does not define the person is equally important.

A few years ago I met Kaylee, a sweet two year old girl. After several days of assessments at Easterseals our team explained to Kaylee’s family that she had autism. At that time Kaylee had never spoken and often appeared to be in her own world, unaware of the people around her. Kaylee’s parents didn’t agree on how to best help her, mostly because neither were sure what to do. The Easterseals’ team enrolled Kaylee in the speech, occupational, and behavioral therapy she needed and Kaylee’s parents started attending the parent support group. Over time, Kaylee blossomed. She is now a very talkative five year old who loves horses and drawing, needs her routines and would rather organize her toys then play with other kids. She endears herself to staff with her spunky personality and contagious laugh.

While autism takes different paths, most parents report they felt concerns before their child’s first birthday. Early intervention is the key to a child reaching their full potential, yet the average age of diagnosis is 4 to 6 years old. There are many barriers families face to getting the diagnosis and services they need: finances, insurance coverage, long waits for services, and qualified providers. But one barrier that should never exist is fear. Fear that their child will not be accepted, loved, or wanted. Fear that their family, friends, and neighbors will never understand. Fear that their child will feel less capable because of a “label”.  Autism is not a label; it does not carry shame and should not cause fear. By spreading knowledge and creating a community of acceptance for people of all different strengths and needs, we can tear down that barrier – and that doesn’t cost anything at all.

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Valerie Lentz, LCSW is the Medical Diagnostic and Autism Program Coordinator for Easterseals Joliet Region where she works out of The Regional Pediatric Center providing diagnostic and clinical services to children with autism, and wrap around support for their families. As a passionate advocate and educator Valerie writes articles, provides professional trainings, and hosts community workshops on topics related to children and families. She can be reached at vlentz@joliet.easterseals.com  Easterseals is a national leader in providing services to individuals with autism and you can learn more about the services offered and how you can support a location close to you at www.easterseals.com

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