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April is National Autism Awareness Month

Amy Cotton Peterson

Chances are that you or someone you know has been touched by autism spectrum disorder at some point in your life. But, most people do not fully understand or appreciate the disorder or its impact. Fortunately, the month of April is dedicated to bringing about awareness of this disorder.

Why is awareness necessary? According to the CDC, autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability, with the prevalence in U.S. children increasing by 119% from 2000 to 2010. This means that the disorder occurs in about 1 in 68 births in the United States.

But those are just statistics. For those that are facing a diagnosis or that are a family member or parent of someone with an autism spectrum disorder, the day-to-day issues are likely much more important. These issues range from navigating a complicated health care system, to treatment options, to social issues and inclusion.

The goal of this month is to foster acceptance, inclusion and appreciation. From a legal perspective, gains have been made in inclusion, privacy and services from, among others, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, and the Rehabilitation Act. But, this month is more about awareness of the unique issues that face those with autism spectrum disorder.

To illustrate, I recently heard from a parent of a child with a disability that said that she understood the good intention of parents telling their children "not to stare" at her child - a child that may look or act differently from their child. However, instead of that message, in lieu of avoidance, she said it would be nice if they said hello and asked her child her name. In other words, get to know that child as they would any other person they were interested in meeting. After all, this is what true inclusion is all about.

For me, as someone involved with great organizations such as Arizona Autism United, as a physical therapist, a health care attorney, and as a mom, this month and throughout the year, is about the mission of changing perceptions, changing perspectives and subsequently changing behaviors. I think about spending the day in the shoes of a parent advocating for their child to receive therapies, to be included in programs, or simply be accepted by their classmates. I think about spending the day in the shoes of someone facing the uncertainty of a recent diagnosis. I think about spending the day in the shoes of someone that is challenged to do the simple things I take so much for granted. Put simply, I think about how I can make a difference in the understanding and acceptance of the unique qualities in everyone. Hopefully, this month, many will do the same.