April is Autism Awareness Month

April is Autism Awareness Month, and it’s likely that you know someone affected by autism — even if you don’t realize it. In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 1 in 59 children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.

In our efforts to create an inclusive lab community and to improve how we relate to differently abled people generally, I encourage readers to get a basic understanding of the neurological differences exhibited by autistic individuals, the impact that those differences have and how you can help.

Autism a spectrum disorder characterized by “challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication.” Some of the challenges from the neurological difference include:

  • appropriate use of spoken language, eye contact, expressions not meant to be taken literally
  • difficulty with recognizing emotions and intentions in others, expressing emotions, feeling overwhelmed in social situations, gauging personal space
  • dealing with repetitive body movements, ritualistic behaviors, narrow extreme interests in specific topics

Autism can be detected at a young age. Early intensive intervention is key to optimal outcomes. Typical interventions at any age include occupational, social skills, applied behavior analysis, play or cognitive behavioral therapy. At therapy, the goal isn’t for autism to be “cured.” The goal is to learn to cope with the neurological differences. Part of the individual’s coping strategy is learning to use words to advocate for themselves. When an autistic person tells us what they need, we should listen. And when an autistic person takes action to cope with their surroundings, we should understand why they do what they do.

An autistic person may wear noise canceling earphones in a noisy room. Or an autistic child might bury himself in a book to calm himself down in a busy environment. While such actions might be read as antisocial, both are actually examples of people helping themselves, lowering the anxiety levels brought on by the noise. An autistic person may also go into her own, separate room to work. Noise and lighting are both common sensory triggers for people with autism spectrum disorder. Again, it isn’t meant as disrespectful. It’s a way for her to cope and focus.

How can you help? First, get to know the signs of autism. Also, know that your interpersonal interactions with an autistic person will be different from those with a neurotypical individual. Remember that autism affects each autistic person in a different way. No two are alike. And if there’s any question in your mind that your relative may be autistic, please look into having him or her diagnosed.

Finally, as with any other dimension of diversity, always refrain from judgment, and appreciate where someone is coming from. None of us respond to the same situations in the same way. This is just as true for autistic people as it is for neurotypical people. Learn to understand how people with autism might see the world, and when you interact with them, join them there. The more you can adjust to include them in your world, the more easily they adjust to yours.

Jennifer Gondorchin is the Fermilab benefits manager.