April is Autism Awareness Month

Child holding face signApril is national Autism Awareness Month and The Arc and The Autism NOW National Autism Resource & Information Center are working to empower people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) with the information and resources they need to live their lives to the fullest potential. We are also working to help others become more accepting of people with ASDs.

With the CDC declaring that 1 in 68 children may be impacted by autism spectrum disorders, it’s a fair bet that each one of us knows someone with autism or someone who has a family member or friend with autism. That’s why it’s important to dispel all of the myths and misinformation to understand and accept what having an ASD really means. And that’s why The Autism NOW Center exists, to weed through the volumes of information out there and provide high-quality, vetted resources and information to people with autism and other developmental disabilities, their family, friends, colleagues, teachers, employers and others.

To promote awareness and acceptance, we invite you to view and share a new video about Autism NOW and learn more. Also, we encourage you to join in the conversation! Throughout April, we will publish the personal stories and perspectives of people with autism on the  Autism NOW blog  to generate discussion about autism awareness and acceptance. We invite your comments here and on our social media channels using the hashtag #AutismAware.

Get in the Game! Sports and Autism

Athletic womanSports are a huge part of many kids’ lives.  Not only is it a social gathering for adolescents to meet friends and learn to be part of a team, it also encourages healthy active lifestyles, and as we know exercise is important for everyone – disability or not. Some parents might think that having a child with autism means playing sports may never be a reality for their child. However, sports can be just as beneficial, if not more, for children with autism.

While many team sports such as basketball or soccer may be a little bit more challenging to grasp due to gross motor coordination, sensory problems or communication issues, individual sports may be the perfect fit. Individual sports like swimming, track and field and karate provide structure and team camaraderie while at the same time being very individualized. This perfect mixture could be very beneficial in allowing the child to fully participate in the activity at their own level while not having the social anxiety that can be brought on from other involved team sports. In a basketball game there has to be that thought process of knowing when the ball is going to be passed to you or who to throw to next.  A sport like swimming permits the child to focus in on one skill only helping to keep their attention and reducing that social anxiety that can be brought on in other team sports.

This team aspect, while helping them develop their motor skills, will also help them develop their social skills too by providing the feeling of being a valued member of a group and increasing self-confidence.  Individualized sports also eliminate the fear that your child will be picked last for the team or “ride the bench” the whole game, creating a sense of failure and rejection in their heads and turning them away from the sport completely. While a child may come in last in a track race, putting the focus on just finishing the race and having their teammates cheer them on to the finish line can be a great self-esteem booster.

Another great aspect of individual sports is the ability to continue participating throughout one’s lifespan. Individuals with disabilities have a higher prevalence for obesity and one large contributor to that can be a sedentary lifestyle (although other factors are also influential). Encouraging fitness at a younger age will help to find fun inclusive ways to exercise that can be carried on into their adult years too.

The Arc’s programs such as HealthMeet and the Autism NOW Center are great places to turn to for valuable information and resources on fitness and healthy living for individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities. Autism NOW’s website contains printable handouts with dietary recommendations and tips that promote healthy eating habits as well as a Health Promotion Guide  containing ideas and suggestions for developing and sustaining a healthy, active lifestyle for individuals with autism.

My Definition of Autism

Andrew ReinhardtApril is Autism Awareness Month and The Arc and Autism NOW are taking this opportunity to ask individuals who identify as being on the autism spectrum to answer this question: “What is your definition of autism?” Andrew Reinhardt is working on a Master’s degree in physical science and has a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome. Below is his personal definition of autism. Follow the conversation this month online using #autismaware

By Andrew Reinhardt, Guest Blogger

Being on the autism spectrum to me was at one point in time a defining characteristic of who I am.  It is not anymore.  I’ve largely grown out of needing to define myself in such terms.  I am a very active individual, albeit not as active socially as I would like to be, but in terms of academics, work and family, I am very happy with my life and define who I am based on these parameters, and others.  This has some advantages, since I’ve seen time and again that having a disability, any disability, is not typically smiled upon in the hiring process or beyond in this country.  I’ve done best and even have tended to be hired more often when I learned to shut up and only open my mouth about having Asperger’s when it’s absolutely necessary.  Since I can pass for an individual who is not on the spectrum, at least at this point in my life, I find that it is better to not bring up such issues at all and play the part of so-called normalcy.

But still, Asperger’s still affects me in highly negative ways, though it affected me in worse ways historically.  I specifically avoid shopping at malls, or anywhere for that matter unless its grocery shopping.  I prefer to avoid eating out to ordering out.  These are habits born out of a general social anxiety, as well as several issues such as what to do with eye contact in crowds, the noise levels, the lighting, so on and so forth.  As bad as it is now, it was worse to the point of breaking out in hives during a full blown panic attack before.

This is progress, even if it doesn’t seem like it at times.  Historically, I’ve faced several problems worse than this, such as a severe fear of, and sensory problems with, insects, that caused me to run away from them to the point of running in front of cars at times.  I also was self-injurious at times when I thought I did something particularly bad, though in hindsight I’m not sure I’ve ever done anything particularly bad in my life.  All that said, though being on the spectrum has been a great bane to me throughout the years, it also has provided some good things to my life, for instance my mathematical skills, my analytical skills, and the drive to be more than I am today, the last of which is probably the most important because I’ve met individuals who have the skill, but lack the drive to do anything with it.  I contend that because of my life on the spectrum, particularly the hardships it’s caused, I’ve done better as an adult than I otherwise would have.

Running With A Purpose

Jonathan Brunot

Photo courtesy of Verlaine Brunot

This is a guest blog post from Verlaine Brunot, whose brother Jonathan will be completing the Boston Marathon this Monday in honor of Autism Awareness Month. It will be his 9th Marathon overall and his 5th time completing the Boston Marathon.

By Verlaine Brunot, Guest Blogger

My name is Verlaine Brunot and I would like to share with you all a story about the power of perseverance, dedication and willpower.  This is a story about my youngest brother Jonathan.  Jonathan is severely autistic.

Jonathan Brunot was born on March 14, 1989; a healthy child with an expressive personality.  He had lots of eye contact, and his vocabulary built steadily as he began to learn to speak.  However, when he was about 2 ½ years of age, he began to regress dramatically.  His eye contact became non-existent and the few words and even phrases he had mastered in the previous months slipped away into completely non-verbal interaction.  Jonathan would later be diagnosed as severely autistic, a prognosis that meant he could never develop “typical” brain function for his age.

Just. Like. That.

Autism is a lifelong, pervasive disorder.   However, no matter how difficult the circumstances; an autistic person is only limited by the limits we put upon them.

Case in point, our amazing mother. She always taught us that Jonathan wasn’t merely an “autistic” individual, but rather we were an “autistic” family.  It was incumbent upon us as a family to do whatever we could to help Jonathan navigate through this difficult world.

That is why throughout Jonathan’s adolescence; my mother contacted many different special needs programs to enroll Jonathan in as many extracurricular activities as possible.  Since Jonathan wasn’t capable of telling us what new things he wanted to try, we effectively had to “throw him in the deep end” so to speak and immerse him in EVERYTHING.

We signed him up for a bowling league, took him to horseback riding, as well as registered him for a special needs basketball league.  These activities gave Jonathan an outlet in order to expend all his energy as well as to help him assimilate “normal” activities like his older siblings.  Jonathan was not always enthusiastic or attentive during some of these activities; however our mother was still determined to at least give him as much exposure as possible to these different environments.  It was precisely this determination and persistence that prompted my mother to have Jonathan join a special needs running club called ROLLING THUNDER.  The selfless volunteer coaches at Rolling Thunder specialized in assisted running with the mentally disabled and they welcomed Jonathan with open arms.

When Jonathan first joined the running club, he struggled tremendously.  For the first couple of weeks, Jon could not run more then 10-15 yard without stopping, or getting distracted or wanting to lie down.  In fact, Olga began running side by side with Jonathan, at times gripping his belt and effectively pulling him along the trails.  Even after 2 months of practices, Jonathan was still not really grasping the concept of running.  Olga was nearly ready to have him quit, both as a result of her fatigue from constantly pulling him and Jonathan’s inability to connect with the sport.  The leader of Rolling Thunder, Steve Cuomo, encouraged Olga to not give up on Jonathan and worked with her to help Jonathan continue running.  That led to the fateful day when Mr. Cuomo introduced Olga to a running coach named Vincent Delcid.

Over the upcoming months, Vincent was able to teach Jonathan to pace himself, and stretch, as well as how to approach hills and to sprint at the finish line.  Over time, Jonathan developed a great “coach – athlete” relationship with Vincent during their runs and really began to embrace the sport.

After several months of running, coach Vincent  REALLY upped the ante.  He could see that Jonathan was really enjoying their runs and was getting faster and faster by the day.  Coach Vincent told us that he wanted Jonathan to run the NYC Marathon. Yes, THE NYC MARATHON.  26.2 long, difficult miles across all the boroughs of Manhattan!

To me, this seemed initially like an OUTRAGEOUS,  INSANE, EXTRAORDINARY goal to set for Jonathan; but at the very same time there was no way we could doubt the determination of coach Vincent.  Between Coach Vincent and Olga, Jonathan had a support system that could NEVER fail.

On November 2, 2008 Jonathan completed his first marathon in 4 hours and 48 grueling minutes (ING NYC Marathon 2008) and he has hit the ground running ever since!

My youngest brother Jonathan has evolved into a gifted runner and a tremendous athlete. He’s an amazingly inspiring marathon runner who shows me strength and courage everyday… and oh yea, he happens to be autistic.

The proudest older brother in the whole world,

Verlaine Brunot

You can track Jonathan’s progress via the Athlete Alert text system.
Text RUNNER to 345678
Wait for a confirmation text message.
Reply to the confirmation text message with Jon’s bib number 20973
You will be signed up.

Autism Is “The Matrix”

Wendy KatzApril is Autism Awareness Month and The Arc and Autism NOW are taking this opportunity to ask individuals who identify as being on the autism spectrum to answer this question: “What is your definition of autism.” Wendy Katz identifies as being on the autism spectrum. She is living in Louisville, KY, and pursuing a career in the human services field. Below is her personal definition of autism. Follow the conversation this month online using #autismaware

By Wendy Katz

How do I define autism? It is simple but the total truth: Autism is “The Matrix.” Seriously, it sounds cheesy, but I feel that one reason that I truly related to this classic film is for this reason. What is “The Matrix?” It is everywhere and colors everything, it is the world pulled over people’s eyes to blind them from the truth.

Granted in the case of autism, “The Matrix” is a metaphor: my autism is not a veil blinding me from the truth, but it is a tangible reality, which is everywhere in my world, ever so subtly coloring and altering the contours of my reality and woven into my very fabric in such a way that I am not aware of it and cannot see it. And though I am not blinded from the truth, sometimes my altered awareness does blind me to certain realities tangible to others, whose sight is clear.

Sometimes I am not aware, for example, of subtle politics and actions, which might limit my professional advancement. Other times I might miss the flirtations of a “friend” or the tension in some of my relationships. Some other times I simply cannot see the forest for the trees: I may be so blinded or distracted by a truly “loud” sound or smell that I cannot focus on the true interpersonal undercurrents of a situation. To stretch this metaphor, I may not be “blinded” to the truth, but at times I am “visually impaired”.

When people ask me about the differences between say a psychological issue such as depression or OCD and my developmental disability, the answer comes quickly and easily. There is no slightly off neurotransmitter in my brain that can be slightly tweaked to change my experiences. My very BRAIN is a different shape, and as Morpheus says in “The Matrix”, “The body cannot exist without the mind.” Autism isn’t a social impairment or a need for behavior modification: it is an entire reality, which for better or for worse I inhabit.

One way in which my reality departs from “The Matrix” metaphor, is that on rare occasions, it seems to truly be “for the better”. Sometimes I have a way of looking at the world or solving a problem that is so far outside of the box that it is a true gift. Other times, I find myself seeing straight through a truly smooth manipulator because I am immune to his or her charms. Autism isn’t always a curse but isn’t necessarily a blessing either; it is simply the world in which I live.

So which character would I be in the movie, extending the metaphor for “The Matrix”? I tend to pass well enough in everyday life that some think I was misdiagnosed or “beat” my autism or have such a mild case it “doesn’t count”. But the world I live in, the things I see, hear, feel, smell, touch, taste, and EXPERIENCE are still colored by autism. I have one foot in the “real world”, but I am no Neo; I am still bound by the rules of “The Matrix.”

I tended to identify with Trinity: a ballsy girl with a foot in both worlds, unable to shake “The Matrix,” yet at times able to see through it. I find that when I truly focus, though I still see the world through my own eyes, I can almost extrapolate to figure out the world as a neurotypical person sees it. At times, I feel like a lingual translator of sorts, and I find myself able to translate and explain things to people on both sides of “The Matrix.” I consider this both my “savant skill” when people ask and an invaluable gift.

I remember when the movie first came out, people asked me if I would have taken the red pill out of “The Matrix,” rather than the blue one which ended the “trip down the rabbit hole”. I told them that I would not only grab and dry swallow the red pill, but I wouldn’t bat an eye to see Morpheus and would have cried out in relief, “Oh that explains EVERYTHING!”

All joking aside, autism colors everything I do and all of my many accomplishments, failures, worries, hopes, and dreams. When people ask me who I would be if I wasn’t on the spectrum, I find myself unable to even answer the question. I have accepted that I will never know.

My Definition of Autism

Amy GoodmanApril is Autism Awareness Month and The Arc and Autism NOW are taking this opportunity to ask individuals who identify as being on the autism spectrum to answer this question: “What is your definition of autism?” Amy Goodman is co-director of Autism NOW and an individual on the spectrum. Below is her personal definition of autism. Follow the conversation this month online using #autismaware.

By Amy Goodman

Being an individual on the autism spectrum means that I have a diagnosis of autism.  So what. It doesn’t matter in the long run because it does not define who I am or what I can or cannot do.  First and foremost, I am Amy, an individual who happens to have a diagnosis of autism. I don’t let it get in my way of anything. It does not present any challenges for me and if it does, I work to overcome those challenges by finding a way to jump through the hurdle and succeed at everything I do or try.

For me, it has been a positive experience finding out that I was on the spectrum. I have embraced it and used it to my advantage. It opened a lot of doors that otherwise would have stayed closed. I was able to move forward with my life when I found out. I went to Graduate school and chose the path that was best for me. It helped me to focus on what I wanted to do with my life.

Knowing I was on the spectrum, and knowing that I could be a success has helped me to jump the biggest hurdle of all, obtaining and keeping a job in the autism field. The opportunities have been endless and by embracing my autism, I have grown as an adult. I finally found what I had been looking for more than 30 years – an answer to what direction I should go, and where I fit in in this world.

Explaining to someone not on the spectrum is very difficult. They just don’t seem to understand why I do what I do. They are always being pessimistic and saying that there is nothing wrong with me, which in this case is true. There is nothing wrong with me. It’s the attitude of others that only see the glass as half empty and that I’m not capable of doing anything at all. That is something that needs to be fixed. Me? I’m the optimist. Don’t fix what isn’t broken. Fine tune it. If someone is on the spectrum, utilize their abilities and accommodate their needs, don’t question them. Work with them to maximize their brain capacity. See the situation through their eyes. Give them a chance to excel and most of all treat them with respect and dignity.

We may not be the most social of beings, but we certainly can learn and grow from our mistakes. Just remember there is more than one way to skin a cat, so explaining what it’s like living with autism is different for everyone on the spectrum. I don’t need to explain anything because I’m perfect the way I am. If I don’t like something I avoid it. If it hurts my ears, I wear earplugs or noise canceling headphones. There is a solution for every problem, one just has to do what is best for them and not worry about what others think.

Autism is part of me, so it should not define me or need explaining at all. Not everyone can pass as “normal” or “neurotypical” but who wants to be like them anyway?  I am who I am and there is no changing me. Accept me for who I am and you will see autism in a whole new light.

What’s Your Definition of Autism?

Young Child With AutismAs you may know, a new edition of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM) is coming out in May with changes to the definitions of certain disorders on the autism spectrum which is used by medical professionals, government agencies and insurers. There has been much talk about what this will mean to individuals and their families when it comes to obtaining a diagnosis and receiving services. But during Autism Awareness Month in April, The Arc and Autism NOW would like to refocus the conversation on the individuals living with autism day to day and ask: “What’s Your Definition of Autism?” What does the word “autism” really mean to you on a personal and individual level?

This April, we invite you to join us in raising awareness about what autism really means. Here’s how YOU can participate in furthering the conversation during Autism Awareness Month – be sure to jump in with your thoughts and feelings on what the definition of autism is to you and share with everyone you know using the hashtag #AutismAware:

Follow Autism NOW on Facebook and Twitter

Follow The Arc on Facebook and Twitter

Join The Arc’s online community

Read The Arc’s blog

Sign up to receive Autism NOW’s Prism e-newsletter

Join the Autism NOW forums