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Autism - Hidden Differences in Schools
by Lu Randall

Someone, somewhere, chose April for Autism Acceptance month. That means our office is slammed with requests from schools requesting presentations for grades K-12, and makes me wish it was earlier in the school year, because by now, misunderstandings have gone on for seven months if autism has remained a taboo subject.  But April offers a great opportunity to talk about the brain and about caring for people who have different types of brains. We are all a little different depending on our genes, and we can help each other out – so let’s do it!

Approaches and attitudes change since I started working in the field in 1994.  But one thing – stigma- seems to have stayed relatively the same.  Autistic adults (generally their choice of identity-first language) can sometimes speak, write, or act for themselves and express Autistic cultural pride or ask for help.  But the rest of us seem to be hesitant to talk when it comes to children.

Autistic adults may say “if I have to remind someone that I am a person first, and then autistic, that says more about the other person.”  And parents or professionals by and large stick with the person-first language.  “Children with autism” is the mainstream term.  Autistic adults tend to think “my autism is me and my culture – you can’t divide those.”  Yet for many school-aged children, the word “autism” is never spoken at all, leading to much misunderstanding and unkind treatment.

Autism means having brain differences.   Senses may be super-sensitive or dull, on a spectrum. Nerves that send information dictate how we all take it in and then how we try to communicate back out to the world, and those may not work well. Movement may be affected, and there are often gut problems.

Often when we de-stigmatize and teach about this, and more, understanding grows and peers can be supportive.  “They don’t know what they don’t know” really applies here – why is that person allowed to make noise in class, only do half the homework, and get up and move whenever they want to? I try that, and I get punished!”  This breeds resentment and adds to bullying situations that could be avoided.  Call us – let’s all talk about your situation and see if we can help teach about what was once mysterious, but no longer has to be.  We can help bring out the best in everyone involved – and not just in April!

Lu Randall has a master's degree in rehabilitation counseling from Wright State University, and is the Executive Director of the Autism Connection of PA.

For more information on Autism Connection of PA, visit www.autismofpa.org to find out about their 64 support groups, Medical and Mental Health Aspects of Autism Conference (May 4) and a list of their current seminars. Beginning April 10, Introduction to Autism classes will be held at their Etna offices several times a year. Call (412) 781-4116 for more information.

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