July marks the 28th anniversary of passage of the American with Disabilities Act. We’ve come a long way in the past several decades in the way we think about people with disabilities. And with the rate of autism diagnoses increasing, from 1 in 68 to 1 in 42 in the past few years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Minnesota’s “putting people first” attitude has been beneficial. It is essential that we continue to make meaningful progress toward a society that is accommodating and inclusive of individuals on the autism spectrum.
While the data are significant, it is ultimately people who matter. While improvements such as early diagnosis, services and overall acceptance continue, people on the autism spectrum continue to face significant barriers in involving themselves in the community, particularly in regard to employment and education, as well as experiencing inequities in the criminal justice system.
For many on the spectrum, finding and keeping a job is difficult for a variety of reasons, such as struggles with social interactions and lack of transportation. In order to improve outcomes, investing in programs that look at individual strengths is essential.
Children and adolescents on the spectrum often have difficulty in school. They can have difficulty understanding classroom dynamics and direction. As they struggle to decipher the world around them, they may exhibit challenging behavior. Basic strategies for helping kids on the spectrum through school include clearly defined schedules, writing social stories and working one-on-one with a paraprofessional.
Many on the spectrum face inequity in the criminal justice system. Individuals with autism may not respond to commands, may avoid eye contact or respond with a fight-or-flight response when touched due to hypersensitivity. It is critical that police have a basic understanding of autism spectrum disorder to avoid unnecessary confrontation and best support the person’s needs.
To assist in these goals, we strongly encourage the Minnesota Legislature to reconvene the state autism task force. The task force should be representative of all viewpoints and work on solutions to improve services across state agencies, seek out public and private funding sources in an effort to provide treatment options more efficiently. The task force should also work to train and increase availability of providers. But most of all, the task force should help raise awareness of the prevalence and needs of the autism community.
There is no question that individuals with autism and their families face significant challenges. But it’s essential that communities learn not only to accept and accommodate them but also to recognize that autism is not just a challenge but a way to remind us all what’s truly important. Let’s continue putting people first and working to create a society where everyone can belong.
Noah McCourt is an autism self-advocate who chairs the subcommittee on children’s mental health of the state Advisory Council on Mental Health, and is a member of the Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities. Blake Huffman is a Ramsey County commissioner.