Mar/Apr
2016

Help and Hope for Families Living with Autism: A Caring and Supportive Community Where Children Can Get the Help They Need

Written by Trish Amundson
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Did you know autism occurs in one in 68 children? Did you know boys are four to five times more likely to develop it? The prevalence of autism is rising, which is due, in part, to greater awareness and improved screening. Yet some children with autism remain undiagnosed, and there’s a gap in the number who are diagnosed and the number receiving services. These and other statistics emphasize the importance of area resources, services and advocacy as well as supportive legislation and increased community understanding. 

DIFFICULT DIAGNOSIS, VARIED SYMPTOMS

Autism spectrum disorder and autism are general references for a group of complex disorders of brain development, including various difficulties in social interaction, communication and repetitive behaviors. “It can be difficult to diagnose autism because there isn't a simple test that can be run,” says Jon Sailer, director of Rochester Center for Autism. “Professionals have to observe behavior and development to make the diagnosis.” 

 Some surveys suggest the prevalence of autism is much greater than realized; efforts are underway to improve methods of identifying autism. Symptoms and their severity can vary and range from mild challenges to severe repetitive behaviors and lack of communication. Challenges include difficulty in perceiving the emotional state of others, unwritten rules of social interaction and expressing empathy as others may expect. Strengths also can be present, such as attention to detail, loyalty, honesty and average to above-average intelligence. Symptoms may be accompanied by other medical conditions. 

TREATMENTS AND THERAPIES

With both strengths and challenges, many children with autism benefit from coaching and therapy to help them interact socially and live relatively normal lives. All ages can benefit from early intervention and treatments including speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, music therapy and dietary help. “There are many different treatments for autism, some for each specific symptom,” explains Sailer. “ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) is the therapy we provide at Rochester Center for Autism. We work one-on-one with our students to help facilitate growth across all skill areas.” 

Another resource, the Minnesota Autism Center (MAC) is a nonprofit ABA service provider for clients ages 2 to 21 and their families. “We provide not only Individual Skills sessions but Family Skills sessions, so that the families are equipped and supported as well,” says clinical supervisor Jennifer Diederich. “We offer diagnostics, speech/occupational therapy and parent/sibling support groups.”

Trained professionals on the MAC therapy team seek to reduce and eliminate the signs and symptoms of autism through ABA therapy, based on factors including data-driven research, scientific support and structure that meets individual needs. MAC promotes the welfare
of those challenged by autism spectrum disorder and supports the development of healthy families.

EDUCATION AND ADVOCACY

Recognizing that everyone in the community is affected by autism in some way, RT Autism Awareness Foundation (RTAAF) works to educate and improve understanding, advocate for those who struggle, and bring members of the community together to support children with autism. RTAAF helps ensure the safety of families and awards scholarships to promote higher education for students with autism. Fundraising events include the RT Autism Awareness Gala and a skydiving event.

In addition, the Southeast Minnesota Autism Alliance (SEMNAA) maintains a database of
related resources available in southeast Minnesota, including legal and social services, medical and therapy services and transition and employment services. The alliance’s online Autism Spectrum Disorder Resource Guide provides contact information, including phone numbers, addresses and websites. The association and network that comprises professionals, parents, educators and citizens help individuals with autism through educational and supportive activities, as well as events and group meetings.

LEGISLATION FOR AUTISM

On the state level, the movement for autism rights is making progress in the legislature. Representative Kim Norton (DFL-Rochester) recognizes that parents and family members of individuals on the autism spectrum face challenges in their journeys, and her goal is to provide tools to meet those challenges. In recognition of her work on important autism-related legislation, Norton was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Autism Recovery Foundation and other autism organizations. 

Nationally, Hillary Clinton released an autism plan that emphasizes increased screenings, post-graduation transition plans, employment, research and coverage for related services. The fact that a presidential candidate is addressing autism is promising, and hope remains strong that similar autism plans will be introduced by other presidential candidates. 

COLLABORATE AND ADVOCATE

In the greater Rochester area, volunteers, family members, educators, caregivers, medical and legal specialist and other professionals and community members are working together to provide support for those on the autism spectrum and their families to help ensure they receive it. Compensation for many is simply the gratitude of helping others. Volunteers collaborate and advocate to improve the health and quality of life for those in need, but that's not always enough.

"it's about empathy and understanding," says Randy Schmidt, executive director of RTAAF. "The message is simple: It's a different journey." After a 33-year career at IBM, he was inspired by his daughter, a therapist, to get involved and raise awareness about autism and its effects. 

HOW CAN YOU HELP?

MAC partners with and sponsors national and state awareness events and provides local presentations, consultations and trainings throughout the year. In addition, the center holds a yearly fundraising carnival and silent auction in July. “We always love seeing the community get involved with our events,” says Diederich.

NATIONAL AUTISM AWARENESS MONTH

A nationwide effort to promote awareness of autism, National Autism Awareness Month is recognized in April. It’s an opportunity for everyone to commit to a better understanding of autism and participate in special events.

“This year MAC will hold its Third Annual Beard-a-thon. It is a great awareness and fundraising event in which we partner with the Minneapolis Beard and Mustache Club,” says Diederich. “Our clients, staff and families all get involved in this really amazing event.” 

Whether you attend a carnival, grow a beard or participate in other activities and events, join the community in learning more about autism. Autism affects millions of Americans, including your neighbors, friends and family members. Take time and help support those who are living a different journey — a journey that requires help and hope.

AUTISM INFORMATION AND RESOURCES

These websites were also used as article information sources.

 Trish Amundson is a Rochester-area freelance writer.