Organizations on the peninsula are showing their support for National Autism Awareness Month.
The month of April “represents an excellent opportunity to promote autism awareness, autism acceptance and to draw attention to the tens of thousands facing an autism diagnosis each year,” according to the Autism Society, which has been celebrating National Autism Awareness Month since the 1970s.
The Autism Society of Alaska, the Kenai Peninsula School District and many other entities are trying to raise awareness in part due to the number the identified cases of Autism Spectrum Disorder, which has been increasing in recent years.
According to the Center for Disease Control, approximately 1 in 68 children were diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder in 2010, compared to ten years prior, when the rate was 1 in 150.
The increase has been noticeable in the Kenai Peninsula School District. Clayton Holland, director of pupil services for the school district, said that in the 2001-02 school year, there were 16 students in the school district diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. This year, he said that number is 97.
Holland said that changing the culture within schools, and creating healthy environments tailored to the students’ needs are both essential when creating positive learning atmospheres.
“If you know one student with autism, you know one student with autism,” Holland said. “No one kid is the same.”
Holland said the school district has taken steps toward improving awareness.
The district supports the Autism Resource Cadre, a group “responsible for providing collaboration, consultation and support to colleagues working with students with Autism Spectrum Disorder,” according to the school district’s website.
The district also provides support to teachers, students and parents regarding issues with autism by utilizing the Teaching Expanding Appreciating Collaborating and Cooperating Holistic program through the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The program “creates and cultivates the development of exemplary community-based services, training programs, and research to enhance the quality of life for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder and for their families across the lifespan,” according to its website.
The school district has also partnered with the Autism Society of Alaska to bring in guest speakers for educational events. In 2012, national speaker, Taylor Crowe, visited Soldotna and Homer to speak about his life with autism.
Pegge Erkeneff, district spokesperson, said the school district’s plan to address autism and other disabilities is to “provide for the needs of the students.”
Results are already appearing in the classroom. Clayton said the district’s students have become more aware of the needs of pupils with autism.
“I think our kids are more accepting,” Holland said. “We have programs in just about every school, so I think there’s an awareness on that level.”
Along with the school district, the Autism Society of Alaska has also been doing its best to raise awareness.
The group held a “Fundraiser Extravaganza for Autism Awareness” at the Soldotna Prep School on March 28, which included games, activities and a sensory walk, which helps people understand what it feels like to live with autism.
Tonja Updike, board member for the Autism Society of Alaska, said the event wasn’t held in April due to scheduling conflicts, but the day was still a success. She said approximately 200 people attended the fundraiser.
Updike said that having events throughout the year is important. She said that parents of a child with autism could sometimes feel isolated, so frequently providing a meeting place is helpful to families dealing with autism spectrum disorder.
“It’s a nice way for families that don’t have access to activities to access those in a non-threatening environment,” Updike said.
Updike said there are many organizations on the peninsula that are helpful to children with autism and their parents, including Frontier Community Services and Hope Community Resources.
The school district has also been helpful, Updike said.
“They are fabulous,” she said. “I’ve had really good success with the school district down here.”
While the cause has garnered a lot of local support, National Autism Awareness Month has also been recognized by the United States Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
“Every day, the millions of Americans living with autism and their families face unique and daunting challenges that many of us will never fully appreciate,” Sebelius said in a statement. “During National Autism Awareness Month, we renew our commitment to better understand autism spectrum disorder and improve the lives of individuals living with it.”
Reach Ian Foley at firstname.lastname@example.org.