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One common misconception about people with autism is they are all the same. In reality, every person with an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis has their own unique strengths and challenges.
"If you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism,“ said Stephanie Higgins, a special-education teacher at West High School in Iowa City. ”The next person is different.”
The Autism Society of America celebrates April as Autism Acceptance Month, a time to celebrate differences by sharing information about autism and promoting acceptance and inclusion of individuals with autism.
Autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, is typically characterized by some level of difficulties with social interaction and communication. Some people mistakenly believe people with ASD won’t be successful. In reality, there are many children and adults with autism who are high-achieving — some traits associated with autism, like a great ability to focus on a topic of interest, can be strengths at home, at school or at a job.
Autism is a spectrum, with people experiencing a wide range of mild to severe symptoms and characteristics.
“There are students that have autism and are quite functional in society, but they may tend to need to communicate and do things a little differently than others,” said Steve Merkle, a special-education teacher from West High School in Iowa City.
How do students with ASD succeed at school? It can be a challenging place, full of social interactions and sensory stimulation. Dealing with things like bright lights and noises can be difficult.
"If somebody seems to be having a hard time, you might not know what's bothering them,“ said Higgins, who also works as an instructional design strategist at West. ”It could be something that, to us, doesn't seem like a big deal, but to them, it's huge.“
Special education teachers like Higgins and Merkle help make schools a more comfortable place for all students, including those on the autism spectrum, to learn and be successful.
Students can play a role in making school a better and more inclusive place for all students, too.
One thing you can do is change the language you use to talk about autism. Call it autism spectrum disorder to help reinforce what we know about how each person with autism is different from another.
In a Washington Post column, the mother of a boy on the autism spectrum wrote about her son not having many friends at school. She asked that we all try harder to include kids with autism in friend groups and activities.
An easy thing to do is to think before you make judgments about someone else, even if they are doing something that might seem odd, like not making eye contact or playing with a fidget toy.
Some kids on the autism spectrum struggle to make eye contact with others, but this doesn’t mean they aren’t listening or are trying to be rude. And some students with ASD like to use fidgets to help them concentrate.
To be a more inclusive student, Merkle said to start by being kind.
"Just (be) friendly and smile and greet them the same way you would greet anybody else,“ he said. ”That's the first step.“
Iowa City West High School's Community Inclusion Club will hold the annual Talent Show and Family Night at West High North Band Room on Thursday, April 21 at 6:30 p.m. The event is free.
There will be a silent auction throughout the night as a fundraiser for Camp Courageous, which serves children, teenagers and adults with special needs. This activity is one of the many activities the club holds to increase socialization between students who receive special education services and the community around them.
Mishka Mohamed Nour is a student at West High School and an editor, reporter and designer for the West Side Story.