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You - yes, you - play a part in autism awareness

The data surrounding the bio-neurological developmental disability known as “autism” continue to indicate it has reached epidemic levels.

When the Spotlight in 2013 started its autism awareness campaign, which is tied to the national recognition of April as Autism Awareness Month, the ratio of children affected by autism was 1 in 88, according to an estimate provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That figure was already a significant increase over the ratio of 1 in 150 children — a 71 percent spike — affected by autism the CDC had reported in 2007. In 1975, the ratio of children believed to be affected by autism was 1 in 5,000.

Today, the CDC’s national estimate of children with autism is 1 in 68, a 30 percent increase over the ratio reported in 2014.

The number continues to rise, with boys making up the large majority of those affected. Indeed, some medical professionals believe the volume of people who have autism is even higher than the CDC estimate.

It would be surprising to learn of a Columbia County resident who did not know someone, or have a friend of a friend, who is living with autism. Yet, we continue to hear stories about negative encounters between people living with autism and an ill-informed — or in some cases just plain ignorant — general public.

Lidia Saavedra, a St. Helens resident who has two sons with autism, discussed a situation in which a manager at a local retail store equated her children to animals who had been let out of the zoo. It happened when her boys were younger and they were shopping as a family, and it’s far from the only negative encounter she and her boys have experienced.

Over the past three years since we started this campaign, we have heard time and again about scenarios in which so-called regular people attempt to shame or degrade the parents of young children who have autism, or even attempt to take it upon themselves to correct the child. Perhaps the child is being noisy or behaving in a way that makes an observer uncomfortable, disrupting the societal expectations of quiet and order. Or maybe the child is not being responsive to a request, such as moving out of the way if he or she is blocking an aisle at the grocery store. These are not uncommon behaviors for a person who has autism. But ask yourself: How should we judge your behavior if the first reaction that comes to your mind during such encounters is to hurl insults, or to grow impatient and combative, or to attempt to shame the parent?

Instead, perhaps inquire if there is a way you can help.

This week, we also spoke with Syb Owens, a special education teacher for St. Helens High School, and discussed with her two initiatives — Exceptional Child and Students Helping Inspire Non-judgmental Equality — that are helping bridge the gap between typical high school students and those who have autism. It is encouraging this education is happening in our schools. The desired outcome, which is to instill a measured, helpful reaction when autism is encountered in our day-to-day life, to see life through the eyes of those who live on the autism spectrum and remove the awkwardness that comes with the unknown, benefits all of society. We can only hope similar initiatives are taking place across the globe.

For each issue in April, the Spotlight will promote autism awareness by way of a puzzle piece, the widely accepted symbol for autism awareness, and will publish advertiser-supported messages to raise the community’s knowledge about autism and ways it can take part in events planned throughout the month.