Two significant news items about autism came out this week: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that one in 68 children is diagnosed with autism—a 30 percent increase in two years—and findings indicate autism begins before birth.

In a CBS news report regarding the increase in diagnoses, Liz Feld, president of the advocacy group Autism Speaks, said in a statement, “Behind each of these numbers is a person living with autism. Autism is a pressing public health crisis that must be prioritized at the national level.”

Although early intervention is called upon to help rewire the child brain, what happens to those who are fast reaching adulthood?

Michael Rosen, a spokesperson for Autism Speaks, pointed out the gravity of that question:

“We went from one in 110 to one in 88 and now one in 68, and these kids are getting older,” he said. “You don’t die from autism. You live a long life. So every year 50,000 of these kids reach 18 and lose their services. They need places to live, employment.”

“These are people,” Rosen added, “not numbers.”

The innovative model of Erik’s Ranch & Retreats seeks to provide a place to live, coupled with employment at Erik’s Retreat in Minnesota and Erik’s Ranch in Montana. Funding is what stands in the way. Join us as the grand openings April 11 in Minnesota and April 25 in Montana to learn how to help make a difference for this underserved population

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As communications director for Erik’s Ranch & Retreats, I sometimes like to offer up my views, ideas and thoughts about autism and the adults we serve. Today, I want to discuss advocacy and our upcoming Diamonds in the Rough, which is our inaugural art exhibit and sale.

On the surface, this event may appear to be a fundraiser. Although raising funds is part of the picture, it’s more. Many individuals with autism are talented artists who need an advocate to help them exhibit their work. As any artist knows, art is a tough business and assistance is often a matter of survival. Diamonds in the Rough can be your advocate. The event will include art from individuals on the spectrum, as well as established artists. The established artists may be what draws people in; but once collectors enter the gallery, they could easily discover an unknown artist: YOU.

This is an opportunity to do several things: 1) show your art to collectors, 2) hang your art in a prestigious gallery, 3) receive compensation for your art (artists on the spectrum receive 50 percent of the sale of their art) and 4) possibly be discovered.

There’s still time to submit, just visit our website and look at the Diamonds in the Rough submission guidelines or send an email to art@eriksranch.org and we’ll help you submit art for this event. But don’t wait; the submission deadline is July 30. Contact us today and let the world see what we already know: you have talent.

I watched an interesting video the other day. A young woman named Faith Jegede talked about what she has learned from her brothers who both have autism. This arresting comment she made toward the end of the video made me want to stand up and cheer.

“The pursuit of normality is the ultimate sacrifice of potential,” she said. “So, please don’t call me normal.”

I applaud Faith’s perspective and admission that, yes, there have been trials when it comes to her brothers, but they recede in light of what her brothers have taught her about life and living.

I know that we have just gone through Autism Awareness month. But, I think there’s more to do than just making people aware that autism exists and that it has become an epidemic.

Society would be better served by looking past the differences of individuals with autism. Expanding our idea of what is normal bears consideration. They are who they are, as we are who we are. I want to be accepted for who I am. I should not expect that to be any different for someone who has autism.

Let me tell this story to help illustrate what I mean. A young adult with autism was asked to participate in an internship at a large company. The work he was assigned was menial and mostly repetitive; certainly not a job that would challenge anyone. One day a piece of equipment came in that needed repair. None of the professionals could figure out what was wrong, and therefore, couldn’t fix it. While they went on break, however, the intern diagnosed the problem and repaired the equipment, saving the company thousands of dollars. But, rather than recognize his abilities and promote him to more suitable work, he was merely thanked and sent back to his menial tasks.

When the myopic pursuit of normal is expanded, potential will no longer be sacrificed.

On November 29, Bob Wright, co-founder of Autism Speaks, stated this in his testimony to the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform,It’s Time for a National Autism Strategy … to address the $137 billion per year cost of autism. The status quo isn’t working. It is time we commit to a comprehensive national strategy for autism.”

However, ignorance of autism is a major obstacle challenging the status quo. It’s not just the government that needs to be involved; it must be a universal endeavor.

I almost cheered when I read “Autism can be an advantage, says researcher,” on NBCnews.com. Dr. Laurent Mottron, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Montreal said, “By seeing autism’s differences as defects, researchers may fail to fully understand the condition.”

Through my son Erik, I have first-hand experience of Mottron’s assertion. Individuals with autism receive and process information differently, but that doesn’t mean they are deficient, incapable or ignorant. It just means they process and respond differently.

The unfortunate result is those with autism face challenges finding jobs, communicating with and being accepted by mainstream society. As Wright says, “The majority of adults with autism are unemployed or underemployed, a tragic waste of potential.” But, given a safe environment and an opportunity to express their strengths, they can thrive.

A recent New York Times magazine article features Specialisterne, a company based on the tenets that, “given the right environment, an autistic adult could not just hold down a job but also be the best person for it.”

Specialisterne has appeared in this blog previously. Currently, the company concentrates on technology jobs. However, not everyone with autism excels in technology. Erik’s Ranch & Retreats focuses on what individuals with autism can do—not what they can’t—and builds on those skills. Both models are viable and promote self-sufficiency among a misunderstood population. Recognizing autism as an advantage and thinking outside the status quo is what will move us beyond it.

Everyone knows you can’t fit a square peg into a round hole, right? If that is such common knowledge, why does society have so few molds into which people can fit?

 

As you’ve probably guessed, I’m talking specifically about adults with autism, but generally about anyone perceived as having a disability. Take a look at this letter from John Franklin Stephens to a celebrity whose tweet used the word retard to describe the president of the United States. You can read his entire thoughtful rebuttal here, but this is the opening comment:

 

“…you aren’t dumb and you aren’t shallow. So why are you continually using a word like the R-word as an insult?

 

“I’m a 30-year-old man with Down syndrome who has struggled with the public’s perception that an intellectual disability means that I am dumb and shallow. I am not either of those things, but I do process information more slowly than the rest of you. In fact it has taken me all day to figure out how to respond to your use of the R-word last night.

 

“I thought first of asking whether you meant to describe the President as someone who was bullied as a child by people like you, but rose above it to find a way to succeed in life as many of my fellow Special Olympians have.

 

“Then I wondered if you meant to describe him as someone who has to struggle to be thoughtful about everything he says, as everyone else races from one snarkey sound bite to the next.

 

“Finally, I wondered if you meant to degrade him as someone who is likely to receive bad health care, live in low-grade housing with very little income and still manages to see life as a wonderful gift.”

 

Franklin’s comments struck a nerve with me. His eloquent depiction of what is endured by those who are perceived as different hits home for many on the autism spectrum. It seems that rarely, people look beyond the exterior. But, what if we looked deeper? What if we could see the diamond in the rough? It’s always there; we just need to look past our prejudices.

 

So many people are discounted and even shunned for their differences. But, like Franklin, they persevere and see life as a gift. Let me give you some examples.

 

Oscar Pistorious, born without fibulas in his legs, fought for and won the right to compete in the 2012 Olympics. Nicknamed the Blade Runner because his lower legs are fitted with metal blades, he came in second in his heat. Initially, his bid for the Olympics was rejected because he doesn’t run like everyone else. Eventually, someone saw beyond the surface and let him run. And run he did.

 

Or this video of a young girl with autism, Jodi DiPiazza, who displays a “learning difference, not a learning disability” as she plays and sings with Katy Perry at “Night of Too Many Stars: America Comes Together for Autism Programs” on Comedy Central. As the video shows, medical professionals gave her parents little hope. But, they were wrong.

 

It was the same story for my son Erik. Medical professionals said horseback riding and other sports such as skiing could be dangerous. But we didn’t give up. It took two years to get him to hold the tow rope and now he skis. It takes him a long time to learn, but he can learn.

 

In these examples, someone had the vision to see beyond the surface to what’s inside. When that happens, people can soar. Sometimes it may take a little more effort to pay attention, give someone free rein and follow his or her lead. But when we allow ourselves to change our perception and give someone a chance, magic happens.