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April is Autism Acceptance Month

April is Autism Acceptance Month, but it’s also a time, like every other month, to celebrate the powerful, expert student support by the CHCCS Autism Specialists. The commitment to students with disabilities is an integral component of the equity work across the district, as teachers, staff and parents seek ways to create more inclusive and affirming environments in our schools.

This year, the Autism Society of America is joining with other autism organizations to designate April as Autism Acceptance Month, rather than Autism Awareness Month. The change in language is important, as advocates and educators note the need for acceptance is greater than ever, as schools and communities seek to ensure that autistic individuals can live fully in all areas of life.

Katie Brady and Stephanie Thurber serve as the two elementary school autism specialists, and for the past two years, they have created and provided newsletters for all CHCCS elementary schools with teaching strategies for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Lead Autism Support Specialist, Tania Treml, said, “To date, they have shared over 13 editions with their school teams. They have highlighted key ideas each month and provided examples and explanations for that topic. The feedback has been very positive and the highlighted topics spark collaboration with the individual school teams to support students. While Katie and Stephanie are accessible to their teams, it is nice for teams to have the newsletters as a reference as they plan for success with their students.”

The “Autism 101” newsletter produced by Brady and Thurber for April 2021 leads with an article about the transition from “Awareness” to “Acceptance.”  “The important distinction of Acceptance encourages all individuals to not only be aware of autism, but also to accept that autistic individuals may communicate, interact socially, and otherwise behave in ways that are different from the norm, and that is OK.”

The newsletter addresses the departure from previously used images, as well as language, with a brief article on why the “puzzle piece” is outdated. Since 1963, a puzzle piece has often been used as a symbol for the autism community, partly as a reference to the idea that children with autism struggle to “fit in.” “Many autistic self-advocates have called for change, reminding people they are neither broken nor a “thing to be figured out or put back together.” The new, increasingly popular symbol is a rainbow-colored infinity symbol as a representation of neurodiversity and inclusion.

The April newsletter offers tips to “Be a Better Ally.”

  • Refrain from using language like "so OCD about it" or "We're all a little bit autistic." These statements have the effect of minimizing the disability that others experience.
  • "High functioning" and "low functioning" are outdated terms that never truly captured any individual's "level" of functioning. Instead, consider the individual's specific strengths and needs. A student may "require significant supports for communication," for example.
  • Focus on mutual accommodation! We often think about how to teach autistic students to fit in and interact with their neurotypical peers. Acceptance and inclusion, though, means teaching neurotypical peers how to interact with their autistic peers.

In previous editions of “Autism 101,” Brady and Thurber have shared insights and strategies for teachers that include tips for better understanding their students’ responses to change and uncertainty, ways to plan proactively and ideas for teaching social skills effectively.

The November “Autism 101” newsletter focused on intersectionality, sharing North Carolina and U.S. data on gender and race as important factors for understanding how to best serve students. “Our goal is to continue to learn and grow in our understanding of equity and intersectionality issues. We hope to collaborate with PLCs and our school based teams to have discussions that support anti-racism, specifically as it pertains to Black and Hispanic children with ASD,” Brady and Thurber wrote.

In the U.S., 1 in every 54 people lives with autism. As the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) has stated, “Acceptance of autism as a natural condition in the human experience is necessary for real dialogue to occur.”