For a growing percentage of our population, autism is a part of everyday life. How we support and empower children with autism speaks volumes about our society’s ability to be inclusive, productive, and fair.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It’s a perfect time to celebrate people with autism and elevate our awareness about this complex group of neurodivergent individuals who enrich our lives every day.
Here’s how we all can better support both children and adults with autism, ensure they are shown respect, and empower them to feel valued by society:
Children with autism
According to the CDC, an estimated 5,437,988 adults in the United States have autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) and autism prevalence has increased 178 percent since 2000. In 2023, the CDC also reported that approximately 1 in 36 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to 2020 data.
Rising autism numbers are caused by several factors, including better screening, increased knowledge about autism, decreased barriers to care, and increased autism awareness. But the bigger point is that a growing part of our community has, and will continue to be, diagnosed with autism. Additionally, most children with ASDs have at least one mental health condition, according to a new study by U.S. and Canadian researchers, creating additional challenges and barriers.
An eight-year-old child diagnosed with autism in 2021 will graduate from high school in 2030. They will then become an adult living with autism. And a new generation of children to be diagnosed with autism will follow behind them. How many generations of children, teens, adults, and families will we continue to ignore?
Children with autism often struggle with social interactions and may engage in repetitive behaviors, known as stimming, which leads to bullying and isolation in school. In high school, they may have few friends and spend a lot of time alone.
Young adults with autism
As young adults, people with autism often have a harder time finding well-paying, fulfilling work. Many work beneath their abilities and talents. As older adults, they may not be able to live independently and may struggle with mental health challenges. There are also individuals living with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) who have significant developmental/ behavioral problems that require more intensive support. These individuals face even more obstacles to inclusion.
Accepting people with autism benefits our community in so many ways, and the labor market is one highly visible example. Adults with autism often have a hard time finding work or are underemployed. A Deloitte report states, “In the United States, it is estimated that 85 percent of people on the autism spectrum are unemployed, compared to 4.2 percent of the overall population.”
There are more than just social benefits to hiring people with autism; there are also numerous economic benefits. A recent article in Entrepreneur.com states that employing neurodivergent people helps them become financially independent, which also decreases reliance on government and nonprofit resources, lowering the cost of community support services overall.
Employers who are struggling to hire staff would do well to hire people with autism. They are often talented at finding creative solutions because their brains work differently, and their perceived limited interest may lead them to immerse themselves in work or study, making them attentive, focused, and skilled.
Accommodations for people with autism
For people with autism to live happy, healthy, fulfilling, and meaningful lives as members of our community, we must support autism acceptance every day. The answer is simple: providing accommodations and support for both children and adults.
We can create acceptance through sensory accommodations. Sensory processing differences are common in people with autism, which means they may find loud noises, bright lights, strong smells, crowds, and other sensory input overwhelming and extremely uncomfortable. As a result, they avoid outings and miss out on community events and shared family experiences.
Businesses and organizations can seek sensory support training to make their services more inclusive to people with autism. Sunglasses, fidgets, and noise-canceling headphones can support these individuals when at work or receiving services.
Rethinking spaces and events to be sensory-friendly can also create more joy and acceptance in our community. Accommodations like take-a-break spaces, special hours, or sensory suites can open these activities to more families, rather than having one parent stay home with a child who has trouble with sensory input.
Community safe spaces allow individuals with autism to share their experiences and validate their self-esteem. Allowing people to be themselves, doing the things that comfort them – stimming, rocking, or wearing headphones – without judgment is an essential part of creating a supportive environment for people with autism.
People with autism enrich us all
Encouraging individuals with autism to share their experiences provides us with a more complete picture of what living with autism looks like. The neurodiversity movement accepts brain differences such as autism as natural variations, not abnormalities that must be fixed.
Differences make our community strong, vibrant, and beautiful. As the rate of autism diagnoses grows, we must make the decision to accept autism every month of the year – not just during Mental Health Awareness month. Our differences are our greatest strength; I’ve seen that demonstrated again and again.
Diane Cross is president and CEO of a nonprofit providing autism, mental health, and disabilities services.