WJBC Voices: We are beginning to welcome autism

By Mike Matejka

As April ends, so does Autism Awareness month. There are some local signs of progress, though much still to do.

On April 28, the Center for Disease Control released new numbers for autism prevalence. In 2016, they said one in 68 children were impacted. This month, they revised the figure to one in 59.

We can debate whether those increased numbers are better diagnostics or have some environmental or other impact. The fact remains, as a society, we need to adapt to include people with autism.

Locally, we have a parent-generated nonprofit, Autism McLean, which launched its Autism Friendly Community initiative two years ago. The goal was to not only raise awareness, but to ask how people on the autism spectrum can be included in the community – as residents, employees and citizens. Perhaps you’ve seen the Autism Friendly Community window cling at some local businesses, libraries or government offices. On Saturday, April 28, people with autism, their families and allies gathered at the Uptown Circle, and using colorful umbrellas, recreated the Autism Friendly Community logo, representing its six themes and marking two years of effort.

Local residents provided a live Autism Friendly Community logo in Uptown Normal. (Photo by Mike Matejka)

What’s happened it two years:

–An “Autism Friendly Community” white paper was completed for the Regional Planning Commission (accessible at www.autismfriendly.community):  This paper was included in the Town of Normal’s long range plans and has been used as a model for other disability groups.

–Autism Friendly Community window clings were distributed to local businesses and organizations that took steps to become more autism aware.

–Normal Public Library created new spaces and programs, including autism-friendly open houses, a calming Wellness Room, and a monthly Autism Café social space.

–Autism McLean launched its I AM SOCIAL camp for individuals on the spectrum beyond school age.

–“Sensory bags” are newly available through Autism McLean for local businesses and organizations to use. These contain items that can help calm an individual on the autism spectrum. The Miller Park Zoo is among the first local organizations to pilot use of these bags.

–Autism McLean has partnered with the Jaycee’s, Marcfirst, and Max’s Miles in the Harmony Park Project to develop an Inclusive Playground.

Much more needs to be done, particularly around issues of employment, social isolation and housing. Individuals on the autism spectrum make great employees. They are attentive, dependable, honest and focused. They also require structure and explicit direction. Once that combination is reached, an employer gains a loyal employee who shows up ready to work.

Visit autismfriendly.community to learn more. Local people and families are taking the initiative.  This not only opens the door for people on the autism spectrum, but makes us all a more inclusive and caring community.

Mike Matejka is the Governmental Affairs director for the Great Plains Laborers District Council, covering 11,000 union Laborers in northern Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. He lives in Normal. He served on the Bloomington City Council for 18 years, is a past president of the McLean County Historical Society and Vice-President of the Illinois Labor History Society.

The opinions expressed within WJBC’s Voices are solely those of the Voices’ author, and are not necessarily those of WJBC or Cumulus Media, Inc.

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