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Me, Myself, as Mommy: Autism awareness in schools must be strengthened

By Meg Sanders - Special to the Standard-Examiner | May 5, 2023

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Meg Sanders

Ignorant people, dare I write fools, have questioned the reality of autism wondering why now it has become so prevalent of a diagnosis, as if it is a conspiracy. Let's ignore the fact it takes just a little bit of critical thinking to see autism isn't necessarily more prevalent, just more easily recognized than it was even 30 years ago. The Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network published its most recent findings after collecting research from across the county. Statistically, 1 in 36 8-years-olds will be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). If you're going by Utah class sizes, there's bound to be two children with ASD sitting at those desks. Boys are four times more likely to live with ASD and this diagnosis is found across all races and economic levels.

When it's nice outside I like to slide on a pair of headphones, tune into a true crime podcast and walk around North Ogden. More often than not, I wander over to my kids' school, sometimes getting a chance to see them out playing at recess. I feel like Jane Goodall with her chimps. I spy the usual games of tag (replete with some kid being dragged back to home base), over-complicated four square, kickball, and there's always a little group huddling together discussing the elementary gossip, similar to their teachers in the faculty room. As I hit the sidewalk again, I spot a lonely kid, pacing on his tip toes with only his constant stims to keep him company. For those who don't know, a "stim" is a repetitive movement or behavior neurodiverse kids involuntarily do as a means of comfort or release. Bodie often claps his hands, grits his teeth and jumps. Other common stims for ASD children can be hand fluttering, finger movements or rocking back and forth.

To the outsider, these movements could appear weird, annoying or an attempt at attention; in reality, they soothe an overstimulated child, making a stressful moment more manageable. I contend those who are neurotypical also have stims like pulling out their cellphone to scroll or tossing their hair, but these stims fit into the social norms. Stims like clapping, pacing and repetitive groans are out of place within a school, particularly when the classroom is silent for a test.

I watch this boy, solitary at recess, wondering what his classmates might think as he marches back and forth, never looking up. Do they understand how his brain works? Do they understand why a child with ASD craves that repetition? Do administrators even have discussions with students about the neurodiverse? No, they don't because it's not on the RISE test.

ASD is a very isolating diagnosis not just because of the actual symptoms of the disorder, but because of societal ignorance. We want our children to look and act a certain way; when they don't, they are exiled. We run from what we don't understand, leaving a child alone, void of connection. The thing is, children with ASD aren't going anywhere and I wonder what our systems of government, education and human services are doing in preparation.

Ogden Police Department worked with ASD advocate Stacy Bernal to create the Autism Awareness Enrollment to help emergency services communicate and engage with those diagnosed on the spectrum. This database records an individual's needs in case of an emergency situation so officers can respond accordingly. OPD went through mandated training on handling calls in which a neurodiverse person is involved. So why not train and inform the peers of those diagnosed with ASD?

KSL news anchor Debbie Worthen has discussed her child's diagnosis of ASD as he set off to public school. Like any parent, it's absolutely terrifying to launch your small 5-year old off into the crowded halls of the vast universe of elementary school. Throw in a learning disability and a social disorder, the anxiety is amplified. Worthen, along with the school's principal and counselor, gave a presentation on what it is to be neurodiverse -- how some special needs are visible, some show in the way we speak pr walk, or some special needs don't show at all. Why isn't this done in every school as we strive for a place of acceptance and inclusion?

The ADDM states in its research, "The continued increase among children identified with ASD, particularly among non-White children and girls, highlights the need for enhanced infrastructure to provide equitable diagnostic, treatment, and support services for all children with ASD." Why do we need to teach all children about ASD and other neurodiverse diagnoses? Building a healthy connection to community is key to keeping all children safe. The word community creates a feeling of positivity and cohesion parents want at their child's school, the place where they spend six hours of their day.

When children feel connected to their community, they take care of it, they trust those in the community, they are more confident and the quality of life for everyone improves. For children who are neurodiverse, those connections can be harder to foster, particularly when those around them don't know about the neurodiverse mind. It can be harder, but that doesn't mean we don't try, it doesn't mean it can't be done. Autism Speaks wrote, "Inclusion is about offering the same activities to everyone, while providing support and services to accommodate people's differences. Inclusive organizations actively reach out to people with disabilities and seek to understand and appreciate their differences, while fostering a sense of belonging."

Those 1 in 36 8-year-olds will grow, they will become adults. Those kids will carry with them the memories and experiences of school just like kids who are neurotypical. If all kids are educated on special needs you can see and those you can't, it will change how they view the world, especially as they grow to adulthood with their own families. Empathy, inclusion, acceptance -- these aren't dirty words, they're the words that let a kid pacing on his tip toes as he stims through recess know that he belongs, that he has community.

Meg Sanders worked in broadcast journalism for over a decade but has since turned her life around to stay closer to home in Ogden. Her three children keep her indentured as a taxi driver, stylist and sanitation worker. In her free time, she likes to read, write, lift weights and go to concerts with her husband of 17 years.


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