Autism Acceptance Month 2022: Understanding & Celebrating Invisible Disabilities

Every April, the world comes together to celebrate Autism Acceptance & Awareness Month. As inclusion advocates, it’s an important time to reflect on not only what autism is but more importantly, to remind ourselves that autism isn’t linear and that each person with autism has their own unique strengths and needs in different areas.

We’ve all seen the statistics:

More than raising awareness, these statistics are an inclusive call to action.

Autism awareness is a beautiful thing but on its own, it doesn’t quite create the impact required to make a real difference. 

Drawing on our core values: adaptability, encouragement, excellence, inclusion, and innovation, let’s put greater focus on putting inclusion into action – to use the right inclusion tools, resources, and strategies to help support individuals with ASD based on their specific needs and abilities.

The Silent High School Graduation: Inclusion In Action

Each day, schools across the country are making great strides toward inclusion. This can take many forms and progress through the years. At one high school graduation back in 2019, a dedicated principal took his vision for inclusion a step further which reverberates even today in 2022.

Jack Higgins accepting his diploma at graduation.

If you were scrolling through your social feeds in June of 2019, you might have chanced upon a video of that year’s high school graduation ceremonies at Carmel High School in Putnam County, NY. What set this graduation apart from others is that instead of the usual hubbub of cheers and applause of excited high school graduates, respectful silence was offered instead – at the request of high school principal, Lou Riolo for one of their students, Jack Higgins.

Accompanied by his brothers, Jack walked up to the podium while his class stayed in almost total silence. Not because no one wanted to cheer him on but because Riolo — aware that Jack has autism and is hyper-sensitive to loud noises — asked the entire graduating class to stay as silent and as still as possible while Jack made his way up to receive his diploma.

In response, Jack’s classmates offered quiet golf claps and stood up to give him a unique, silent standing ovation.

“It was important to pull this off,” Lou Riolo said. “First off, for Jack; second, for his family, who could experience the same event as every other parent/family whose child reaches this milestone, was of great importance. Lastly, to give the opportunity to everyone in that arena a chance to assist in making one young man’s and his family’s graduation dreams a reality.”

A common challenge for people with both autism & invisible disabilities

Jack’s graduation story perfectly illustrates what Autism Awareness Month is all about: acceptance, inclusion, and compassion for people with autism as well as respect for invisible disabilities. Even if Jack was well-known around campus, his sensitivity to loud noises isn’t immediately visible or common knowledge.

Symptoms can be hidden unless spoken of openly or when they become apparent due to triggers. From mental health issues like depression to physical issues such as one’s ability to stand for long periods of time or for people with autism who have similar sensory processing issues as Jack, medical conditions and disabilities can be overlooked simply because they can’t be seen on the surface.

Lou Riolo’s brilliant use of inclusive practices created a welcoming environment for Jack and supported his participation in an important ritual meaningful for many teenagers. Riolo recognized Jack’s needs and, in turn, his classmates respected his needs. That is inclusion in action right there!

What is autism?

Autism (or ASD, an abbreviation for Autism Spectrum Disorder) is a complex developmental disability that typically appearsduring the first three years of life and is the result of a neurological disorder that affects the functioning of the brain, impacting development in the areas of social interaction and communication skills. Both children and adults with autism typically show difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication, social interactions, and leisure or play activities.

Autism is one of five disorders that fall under the umbrella of Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD), a category of neurological disorders characterized by “severe and pervasive impairment in several areas of development.” PDD includes Autistic Disorder, Asperger’s Syndrome, Rett’s Disorder, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS).

Autism, like other disabilities, can exist on a spectrum ranging from mild to severe. Some persons with autism are low functioning and require substantial support in all aspects of their daily lives; others are high functioning and only exhibit minor impairments. Most individuals with autism require lifelong care.

Although there is no cure for autism, new treatments have emerged over recent years which have helped many individuals with autism overcome some symptoms and lead more productive lives. Early treatment can make an enormous difference.

Everyday challenges for people with autism

  • Difficulties with social interaction, especially when it comes to interpersonal communication, empathy, and non-verbal behavior such as facial expressions, body language, or gestures.
  • Difficulties with processing everyday sensory information such as sounds, smells, tastes, textures, and bright lights.
  • Some people with autism may have issues with everyday tasks such as using money or reading facial expressions. Others may need support because of associated learning disabilities or mental health problems.
  • Inability to communicate effectively and trouble communicating with other people. They may not make eye contact when speaking or use gestures to help get their point across. This can lead to frustration and sometimes even anger, both for the autistic person and their conversational partner.
  • Problems with social situations and understanding the nuances of social situations. They may not pick up on sarcasm or humor, or they may not be able to tell when it’s time to leave a conversation or move on from an activity. This can cause problems in school or at work, where not being able to recognize these cues can lead to awkwardness or misunderstandings with other people.
  • Dealing with the stigma attached to autism. People with autism who may appear to be different from everyone else, or who have some sort of disability, can often be met with ignorance and fear by the general public. This can lead to isolation, alienation, and a lack of opportunities in the community for people living with autism.

A young boy wearing noise cancelling headphones.

It’s important to note that ASD is a spectrum condition. This means it affects individuals differently and to varying degrees of severity. Some people are able to live relatively independent lives but others may have accompanying learning disabilities and need a lifetime of specialist support. All people on the autism spectrum learn and develop. With the right help and an inclusive environment around them, people with autism can live fulfilling lives.

How can you help someone with autism?

Because no two people with autism are the same, there isn’t one easy solution for helping them overcome challenges. However, there are things you can do to accommodate your friend or loved one.

Here are some general tips for interacting with people on the autism spectrum:

  • Rule number one: approach with kindness and acceptance.
  • Ask questions and give them time to answer.
  • Be prepared for interruptions and tangents.
  • Help them feel safe by giving them advance warning about any changes to their routine.
  • Be aware of their sensory sensitivities.

Is autism an invisible disability?

Autism is often referred to as a “silent” disability and not completely “invisible,” as it presents itself differently in each individual.

People with autism do, however, share some common characteristics, including:

  • difficulty communicating
  • difficulty socializing
  • being over- or under-sensitive to loud noises, bright lights, and odors
  • difficulties with abstract concepts, such as time
  • repetitive movements

Another thing that persons with autism share? They look just like everyone else! According to recent CDC statistics, about 1 in 44 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder. This only tells us that if you don’t know any person with autism, child, or adult, chances are you will, or you already have.

As mentioned, ASD is a broad spectrum and affects people differently. More often than not, people with autism are very smart, creative, and talented. You could meet someone with autism on the street or in a store, and you might have been none the wiser unless specifically told.

What can organizations do to be more inclusive to people of all abilities?

Educate yourself

The fact that you’re here, reading all about autism, is the first step. To take your readings further, check out Inclusion Courses from our KIT Academy

Inclusive design

Aside from learning, learning, and more learning, inclusive design of both interior and exterior spaces is beneficial for everyone. Inclusive design is the practice of making facilities accessible by default, rather than making accommodations on an individual basis when necessary. This approach benefits everyone because it focuses on removing exclusionary barriers and replacing them with universally inclusive design elements.

In other words, it’s all about designing spaces that already consider and assume anyone coming into the space could have an invisible disability rather than waiting for a complaint or an accident.

For more insight into designing inclusive, accessible spaces, read Xian Horn’s article in Architectural Digest, Design For All: Transforming the Way We Think About Inclusion, Identity, and Accessible Spaces. A disability advocate with cerebral palsy, Xian is the founder of the nonprofit Give Beauty Wings. She is also an educator and Forbes contributor.

Inclusive practices

Inclusive practices are ones that help people of all abilities engage in an activity or program. This means that no matter how inclusive the design is of your space, it still will not feel or become inclusive without the inclusive actions of the people living or working in it.

Inclusive practices are about being intentional in how we work, how we interact with people and making sure everyone feels like they truly belong.

In addition, inclusive practices are not just about taking disability into consideration. They are about respecting the diversity of all people. The focus is on the ability of each person and how we can support that person to take part in every activity or service.

Practice open communication

Whether you’re a behavior therapist, a teacher, or simply want to foster inclusive practices in your organization, openly talking about disabilities can reduce common barriers that people with invisible disabilities are often challenged with.

 

How do you start? Ask! Listen, and then take action.

For example, if you’ve been made aware of someone with a learning disability that affects how they read, ask what tools and accommodations they need when you’re working together or what would make them feel comfortable.

Our goal: teach awareness and understanding of autism!

Kids Included Together is all about celebrating strengths, as well as focusing on inclusion and acceptance. And April being Autism Acceptance & Awareness Month is a great opportunity to build a better understanding of autism. 

We are all created with unique packaging, and we believe those differences enhance our world. At KIT, we recognize that disability is a natural part of life and work to be allies alongside children and youth with disabilities and their families.

Let’s talk about inclusion! We look forward to discussing options that best suit the needs of your organization and the families you serve. Contact KIT today!