April has been designated as Autism Awareness Month to support education, identification, research and therapy for the many individuals on the autism spectrum. It’s likely most of us know someone impacted – either directly or via friends or family. According to the Centers for Disease Control, autism affects an estimated 1 in 36 children in the United States today. It is diagnosed four times more frequently in males than females, and has always been thought to impact males more frequently. However, the symptoms present differently and sometimes less obviously in females, so the real impact is unclear.

Autism manifests in a number of different ways, which is why it’s called a spectrum. Most often, people on the spectrum exhibit social challenges and sensory challenges. They can be accompanied by coordination challenges, anxiety, depression and learning disabilities among other things. It can be challenging even for the best intentioned of us as everyone is so different.

If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”

Dr. Stephen Shore

There is also a great range in symptoms, from quite severe and noticeable to almost invisible unless you know someone well. But almost all people on the spectrum bring an interesting and ‘out of the box’ perspective to their outlook and conversations!

A common misperception is that people on the spectrum are very smart OR they are intellectually disabled. Per Autism Speaks, there is a wide and fairly even spread of abilities as measured by IQ. It’s also often believed that people on the spectrum don’t have feelings or empathy when in fact they are often quite caring and interested in relationships – they just don’t know how to make it happen.

Despite some great qualities for team members such as reliability, attention to detail and focus, nearly half of 25 year old adults on the spectrum have never held a paying job, and those that do are largely under-employed. This rate is lower than for many other disabilities. The low rate is unfortunate since (per Autism Speaks) having a job has been proven to encourage independence, support improved daily living skills and reduce symptoms. In my experience, employment and earning a salary often helps mitigate some of the feelings of being left out, unable or dependent that can exacerbate depression and anxiety. Employment can create a better life for these individuals, adding diversity of thought to work teams, and reducing the overall cost of our society. We’ve made much progress on diagnosis and early intervention. It’s time to improve the quality of life as many of these people enter young adulthood.

So how can we be allies for people on the spectrum as well as other neuro-diverse groups?

  • Educate yourself. Many great resources exist. www.autismspeaks.org is a great place to start.
  • Support efforts to fund further research, intervention (early intervention works!) by speaking to your representatives, signing up for advocacy notifications and supporting fund-raising efforts.
  • Spread tolerance and kindness. Most children and teens on the spectrum are bullied, and it often continues into adulthood because we don’t understand the symptoms and/or understand how stressors may contribute. They are not oblivious to it!
  • Be open to hiring and working with neuro-diverse individuals.

We can all make a difference.