By Shantel Meek, Special Assistant, Early Childhood Development
Almost everyone has heard the word “autism” by now, and many of us have had our lives touched by someone with autism. Whether you have a family member or friend with autism, saw something on TV or in the paper, or learned about autism in school or in the workplace, chances are you have heard something about autism.
From the growing numbers of children identified with autism to possible causes and various treatments, the topic of autism is a vast and emotional one. Though autism research has made tremendous leaps and bounds over the past couple decades, there remains a lot to be learned, both by researchers and the general public. Here are some things we know about autism:
We also know that early intervention can make a big difference. There is no timeframe more critical for children with ASD than the first few years of life. With early screening, identification, and intervention, children with ASD and their families can receive the services and supports they need to thrive alongside their peers. These children, like all children, have an incredible potential to offer the world and it is our responsibility, as a community, to support them in realizing that potential.
Take Jason. Jason was diagnosed with ASD at 24 months and received early intervention right away. For Jason, early intervention meant some intense teaching around how to talk, interact, and play with the support of teachers, therapists, and his family. I came across Jason’s path shortly after his fourth birthday, as an interventionist in a community-based organization in Arizona. At four, when other children his age were having full conversations with friends and family, Jason could not say one word. Many thought Jason would never speak. After lots of hard work by Jason, his family and team of specialists, and a sense of hope that we never let go of, Jason said his first word just before his fifth birthday. That word was “map.” After that, he started saying more and more sounds, words, and eventually full sentences. It was incredible to hear him express himself with his words!
Today, Jason is a happy 9-year-old boy in a general education classroom with supports, like speech therapy and social skills training. Like his friends, he can have conversations now too. Though he still faces challenges, like we all do, Jason continues to thrive, show us his talents, and overcome his challenges.
As a community, we must continue to find ways to unlock the potential- and appreciate the abilities of people with ASD, while continuously providing support and opportunities for growth. What’s more, we must assure this happens in inclusive settings.
Children with ASD are children first. Jason is a 9 year old child first. Though he and other children with ASD may need extra support in developing language, learning new skills, or playing with friends, it is essential that they receive this support in the most inclusive environments possible, as a sense of belonging and community are important for the development and well-being of all children.
We must recommit ourselves to ensuring that every child that walks through one of our program or school doors feels the sense of belonging and receives the opportunities for learning that all children deserve.
To support the mission of awareness and acceptance, the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) created a web page with resources about ASD made specifically for early childhood providers. The web page, which includes ASD fact sheets, tips written for early childhood providers, and links to many other sites that offer free, high quality resources for families and providers, is an excellent gateway to learn more about and support our youngest children with ASD and other developmental disabilities.
In April, ACF also gained representation on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC), when Deputy Assistant Secretary for Early Childhood, Linda K. Smith was confirmed as a member. The IAAC is an advisory committee consisting of federal and private partners that coordinates all efforts related to ASD within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). As a member on the IAAC, Deputy Assistant Secretary Smith will bring the early childhood perspective and make sure to keep the issue of preparing and supporting the early childhood workforce on the forefront.
With continued awareness, education, acceptance, and support, as a community, we can make sure all of our young children have the best possible start, realize their potential, and feel included every step of the way.
Shantel Meek is a Special Assistant for Early Childhood Development in the Administration for Children and Families at the Department of Health and Human Services. She holds a B.A. and an M.S. from Arizona State University, where she is currently pursuing her Ph.D.