Talking about Autism Awareness Month

April 11, 2018

As an organization that has worked with individuals with Autism for the past six decades, it’s no surprise that Autism Awareness Month is top of mind at Grafton. As a result, I’ve spent time thinking about some of the themes for this year’s month of recognition and how they tie in with the services we offer.

The first week of this month was focused on the growing issue of adults aging with Autism.

When I think about adult issues and aging with Autism, I think about the role of early intervention. Early intervention is crucial in preparing individuals for issues that arise as they become adults. Grafton works hard to provide programs that support individuals beginning when they are young in order to prepare them to manage as an adult.

It’s never too early to start looking at basic living skills. A good example of this is around hygiene. We typically teach someone with Autism how to shower independently at around age 14, 15 or 16 – during those transitional years. But what if we taught an individual hygiene at a younger age – six or seven? Learning how to shower gives someone with Autism an important tool for independence and takes away some level of vulnerability.

Adult issues can begin to manifest during the student years, when we are preparing someone to be independent and operate in their environment, but still relying on supports such as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), speech therapy, physical therapy, etc. It’s our responsibility to prepare someone much earlier in life so that they do not need a high level of support as an adult when, often times, these supports are not as readily available.

For more on adults with autism, my colleague, Bethany Dietz, Director of Adults Services, was recently interviewed on Good Morning, Washington. She also devoted an entire blog to the topic.

This week, the focus is on science

Science has come leaps and bounds in terms of diagnosis and understanding of Autism. As a result, new solutions to help this population are being identified. But there is already a collection of evidence-based practices — some might call them “good teaching” practices — that have proven to be highly effective.

At Grafton, for many of the past 60 years, we have not had the luxury of waiting for evidenced based practices to arrive. In fact, historically, behavioral healthcare techniques weren’t tested on individuals with Autism. There was an assumption that these approaches would not work on people who were not “neurotypical.” Therefore, no empirical data even existed for individuals with Autism. Grafton didn’t wait around for that assumption to change – though, thankfully, it has. We began using the techniques and found them to be very effective.

In more recent years, Board Certified Behavior Analysts have driven the development of a methodology to serve those with Autism. But imagine if we had waited for the literature to catch up with us rather than the other way around? Science is important, but so is proactive teaching.

For more about the blend of science, compassion and common sense, read this recent article by Grafton’s Chief Operating Officer, Scott Zeiter.

Next week, the focus will be on services for families

Grafton offers student-based services for people with Autism from ages three to 21 years old. But when an individual with Autism gets older and graduates from high school, the needs he or she had as a younger person don’t disappear. Unfortunately, though, funding typically doesn’t allow the same type of services — such as ABA, speech occupational therapy, etc. — that were previously available.

Therefore, the family is crucial in reinforcing the skills that have been taught. The focus is prioritized around achieving independence at home and out in the community. The family can help the individual draw upon the tools that previously have been provided through paid supports.

If an individual requires an intensive level of intervention, the family is going to need to be his or her biggest advocate, navigating the Medicaid and insurance systems and getting services. It’s no easy task. At Grafton, we know families are heroes; that is why they are the most important members of our extended team.

You can read about a fantastic group of parent heroes in this blog about Grafton’s ADAPT program.

The last week of Autism Awareness focuses on the theme of advocacy

Individuals with Autism feel just like anyone else. They don’t necessarily see themselves as being outside the norm. Many Grafton clients have told me that it’s the world that needs to adapt to them, not the other way around. And they’re right!

That’s why, though Grafton teaches individuals with Autism how to operate in their community, we also teach the community how to understand and be more accepting. As a result, we’ve seen the communities in which we work become the best advocates for our clients. They’ve gotten to know them and appreciate them as individuals.

For those of us who serve individuals with Autism, one of the biggest challenges is to think and work holistically. We can’t focus too much on our particular siloes, such as early intervention or adult services. Every individual with Autism is going to need all of these various services at one point or another throughout his or her life. As individuals providing care, we need to understand the whole system, and our place within it, to be the best advocates possible for our clients, both now and in the future.