Supporting Autism Awareness

It’s Autism Awareness Month!

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This guest post is from Colleen Allen, Ph.D., president and CEO of Autism Alliance of Michigan.

April is our favorite month at the Autism Alliance of Michigan (AAoM). Sure, it is busy and hectic, but the opportunity to increase awareness and bring information about autism to our community makes it all worthwhile.

For those who are new to autism, it is a lifelong, neurodevelopmental disorder, characterized by deficits in social interaction, communication skills, and behavioral challenges. The well recognized symbol for autism is the puzzle piece. I always find this to be appropriate for many reasons;

  • There is no known cause or cure
  • Presentation can vary widely from one individual to the next
  • Some persons on the spectrum will reach full independence, others will require 24/7 supervision throughout their life
  • Autism is rarely the only condition presented; many individuals will have other, coinciding, mental health or physical concerns

Given these factors, our work is quite challenging. We may be helping a job seeker with multiple degrees to secure a job, and at the same time, assisting a family in crisis, who can no longer keep a loved one at home, due to significant risk of injury or property destruction. The needs are great, and varied. Our job at AAoM is to assure every single family who reaches out to us is provided with the most up-to-date information, professional consultation and case management, and access to evidence based services and supports. Our goal has been and always will be to make life easier – bringing answers and piecing together the puzzle.

We have seen significant reform across Michigan in the past few years. In 2012, AAoM led autism insurance reform efforts with Lt. Governor Brian Calley, and David Meador, Vice Chairman and CAO of DTE Energy. In 2010, DTE was the first large company in Michigan to adopt a self-funded autism benefit, long before the state mandate passed. Additionally, in 2013, a Medicaid benefit was implemented for children and then expanded in 2015. Critical seclusion and restraint legislation was passed in 2016, keeping our children safer at school through improved behavioral protocols and training.

While much of the progress we have witnessed has benefited children in Michigan, we recognize that generations of individuals with autism did not, and could not benefit from these evidence based, life changing interventions. The adult population faces a number of barriers, not limited to; housing and caregiving shortages, a limited network of health care providers willing to accept adults on the spectrum, and an unemployment rate near 90%.  DTE leads the way for other companies to replicate in its autism hiring initiative; to bring more employees with autism into the workforce. We know these employees are loyal, reliable, less distracted by “office politics” and bring a diverse, “out of the box” and novel perspective to many tasks. Consequently, employers experience lower absenteeism, decreased turnover rates, and higher productivity than typical employees. Co-workers and managers report positive and rewarding experiences in performance reviews and interactions, overall.

We are so proud of the opportunities that are now available to families living with autism, but we certainly cannot take credit alone. Community support and partnerships, such as ours with DTE, allows us to bring scale to important initiatives like; employment, insurance reform, safety and first responder training, and navigation – our flagship program which has helped over 2,000 families across Michigan to date.

We hope you will help us celebrate this month by spreading awareness throughout the community. Please consider joining us at the Champions’ Night Afterglow hosted at DTE Energy HQ on Saturday, April 29th. You can also register to attend the 3rd annual Autism Hero Walk presented by DTE Energy Foundation at the Detroit Zoo on Sunday, July 30th.  There are many ways to get involved within the Autism Alliance of Michigan; visit www.aaomi.org for more information.