April is National Autism Acceptance Month, which focuses on raising awareness of autism and celebrating individuals along the spectrum.
Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, is a condition that encompasses a broad range of symptoms that involve difficulties with communication, learning and interaction. According to a 2018 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately one in 44 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.
At Ohio University, there are several resources and organizations for students with autism that offer accommodations as well as social and supportive communities on campus.
Christina Perez, director of Student Accessibility Services, said students with autism can register through accessibility services for various academic accommodations that vary from person to person. In addition to possible accommodations, Perez said students with autism can partake in the Autism Spectrum Peer Coaching Team, or ASPeCT, during their time at OU to provide academic and personal assistance.
“It's really designed to help students with autism transition to the college environment,” Perez said. “It involves pairing them with an upper-class peer coach to help them navigate the academic world and college life in general.”
Perez said this can involve assistance with Blackboard, communicating with instructors and finding different clubs and organizations to help them acclimate to college life.
These various clubs and organizations on campus provide support and a sense of belonging to the autistic community at OU. One such organization is the Puzzle Piece Society.
Adam Cahoon, a junior studying entrepreneurship and economics, is the president and founder of the Puzzle Piece Society. Cahoon said the organization is dedicated to building a common sense of community for students with autism and their allies.
“Recently, on our regular meetings, we've been having awareness-based discussions that touch on issues that the autistic community deals with and many of its nuances, complexities, its positives and its negatives,” Cahoon said.
In his experience, Cahoon found that other people on the spectrum resonated with the same experiences and feelings he had, inspiring him to create this group for those in the community to gather.
“I also found that they were ultimately the ones who … have struggled socially later on, especially at a campus as big as this one,” Cahoon said. “So, I thought if there was a group like this group … then that could help aid into the collective autism community success here.”
In addition to the Puzzle Piece Society, OU has Best Buddies, an organization founded last year by Maya Meade with the aim of localizing an international organization in the Athens area.
Meade, a junior studying journalism, who serves as the organization’s president, said its purpose is to promote friendship and inclusion for students with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities, or IDD.
“What we do is whether or not you have a disability, you're more than welcome and encouraged to participate in our activities, and you get paired in a friendship match,“ Meade said. Ideally, the friendship matches someone that has an IDD and someone that doesn't have one. Then, they're supposed to build a friendship together and their friendship pair.”
While the social aspect remains present within the organizations, they also offer a space for open dialogue surrounding topics relevant to the community. For issues that affect the disabled community disproportionately, Cahoon said it is imperative that more attention is brought to the glaring statistics.
"I find that people, especially our generation, are very accepting with autistic people, but when it comes to a lot of our issues, a lot of it is they just don't know,” Cahoon said. “A great example is police brutality. A third to a half of all police brutality cases are of people with disabilities, but whenever the subject comes up, that aspect is never even mentioned.”
In 2021, the month of recognition was renamed to Autism Acceptance Month, instead of Autism Awareness Month, to promote change and foster acceptance for those in the community, according to Autism Society. This alteration, Cahoon said, is a nuanced issue, as the awareness component remains lacking.
“I know a lot of people on the autism spectrum who want to just say, ‘OK, let's drop awareness and just make an acceptance,'” Cahoon said. “And I think that's great. But on the awareness side, there's still more to go.”
For Meade, she feels further education regarding the community is necessary to increase integration and acceptance both inside and outside of Athens.
“It's really important for people to be educated about what autism is,” Meade said. “And for people to be aware that just because someone has autism, or has a disability of any kind, doesn't mean that they should be excluded or not be allowed to be involved.”
Throughout the month of April and beyond, Perez said it is important to recognize the different abilities that others have and to engage in inclusive practices on a regular basis.
“I think it's just always important to be aware of individual backgrounds and differences,” Perez said. “We're all unique and have different strengths and attributes that we bring to different situations into society. There are small ways that we can help include people in everyday activities.”