By Allison Eitreim
April is Autism Month, but we could all benefit from year-round support for the independent living skills of this population.
For starters, we need to clear up the misperception that people with autism are solitary and prefer to operate alone.
Studies, and my own 22 years working with autism, prove the opposite is true.
People with autism desire personal connection and want to have purpose and value in relationships and work. But because they lack social skills for conversation, most of us miss out on some of the best and talented people in our communities.
Here are some facts about the 3.5 million Americans living with an autism spectrum:
•Thirty-five percent of young adults (ages 19-23) with autism haven’t had a job or received post-graduate education following high school.
•Two-thirds of lifelong costs can be reduced by early diagnosis and intervention, and it doesn’t stop with toddler and early elementary years.
•Only 16.8 percent of those with a disability are employed, but it’s not because autism makes people unemployable.
In the United States alone we have some 50,000 people with autism entering adulthood every year, and employers would do well to know they bring valuable skills to the job.
Our schools and communities need to learn how to provide autism-specific supports. Specific job-targeted skills, greater use of visual aids and teaching appropriate social skills for work situations are the places to start.
People identified with a social communication disorder, such as autism, also need daily practice in conversation skills, friendship skills, problem solving in social situations, etc. It is not that they cannot learn; it is that they need to be taught this information.
When I don’t understand a math concept, the teacher adapts the approach and reteaches me, but when people don’t understand social norms, they are written off as odd, loners, quirky, weird … the list goes on.
If we were all written off on Day 1 of an assignment or a new job, virtually all of us would be homebound, depressed and dependent on state funding and others to take care of us.
This is exactly the scenario playing out in roughly 60 percent of those identified with autism.
They often don’t get “first jobs,” and when they do, they aren’t very successful. The anxiety builds and they become depressed.
People with autism possess job skills and great character. They desire to give back to their community and feel a sense of purpose just like you and I do, but failure and its resulting anxiety can be debilitating.
A Michigan State University study found that (the cycle of) anxiety, depression and low self-esteem cause people with autism to become homebound.
We all lose then.
We lose out on valuable people with potential for being great employees and friends, and we lose about $1.4 million in public funding.
This is for one person with high functioning autism (without intellectual disability) for mental health and related costs over his or her lifetime. The cost rises to over $2.4 million for those with an intellectual disability.
Our autism population needs us to offer a different approach to reaching them. The challenge for all of us is to learn more about autism and how we can make a positive difference in our circles of influence, be it personal or in employment.
Eitreim lives in Luverne and is the autism specialist at Worthington Public Schools. She founded the Regional Autism Networking Group. Contact Eitreim at 507-376-6121 ext. 3744 or firstname.lastname@example.org.