By Mike Matejka
April is Autism Awareness Month. Ten years ago, if one mentioned autism, the image was of Dustin Hoffman in “Rainman,” a neurotic and picky genius savant, or of someone rocking helplessly in a corner, mumbling to themselves.
Last year the Center for Disease Control estimated that one in 59 children are on the autism spectrum, with four boys being diagnosed for every girl. National statistics are still not cohesive, as states monitor differently.
Spectrum is the proper term for understanding people with autism; some individuals are incredibly bright and intelligent, often referred to as Asperger’s Syndrome, while others have more intellectual challenges. Often other physical diagnosis accompany autism.
Here in McLean County, we have some unique efforts to support people on the autism spectrum.
Autism McLean is a parent-founded and all-volunteer organization, that offers supports such as social and athletic events, camps and outings. They are an important resource and support network for parents and care-givers who are often facing the diagnosis for the first time.
Within Autism McLean is the Autism Friendly Community effort. Reaching out to local government, agencies and business, the Autism Friendly Community asks all of us a challenging question – are we Autism Friendly? Under the rubric of Welcome Me, Learn with Me, A Place for Me, Wellness for Me, Work with Me and Recreation for Me, Autism Friendly Community asks all of us to look at our own practices. Individuals on the autism spectrum often have unique skills and make excellent employees, but that person might not do well in a job interview. How does an employer adapt? Perhaps they could offer internships so the person with autism can demonstrate their skills. Do our public spaces, transit and recreational events have a space where people with sensory issues can still participate? Our local governments and planning bodies have responded well to the Autism Friendly Community questions, but much work needs to be done.
Finally, both Marcfirst and Easter Seals offer therapeutic, diagnostic and follow-up programs for those on the autism spectrum.
More challenges await us; that old adage, “don’t judge a book by its cover,” applies well to individuals with autism. Hidden talents are often there, if we create a welcoming and inclusive space for individuals.
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. He currently serves on the Normal Planning Commission.
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