If you have worked in youth development for long, you probably have encountered at least one youth who seems “unique”. You might not know exactly why he or she is different, but you know for some reason she is. That something may be called autism.
As a parent to two of these kids, I have first-hand experience every day with the challenges and joys that autism can bring.
According to The Autism Society, “Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental disability; signs typically appear during early childhood and affect a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. ASD is defined by a certain set of behaviors and is a ‘spectrum condition’ that affects individuals differently and to varying degrees.” Some of the behaviors associated with autism include:
- Delayed speech or absence of speech
- Difficulty making eye contact or holding a conversation
- Difficulty with executive functioning
- Narrow, intense interests
- Poor motor skills
- Sensory sensitivities
- Repetitive behaviors
In March 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published its Autism and Developmental Disabilities Network Autism Prevalence report. It concluded that the prevalence of autism had now risen to one in every 68 U.S. births. As indicated in the chart above, this is nearly double the 2004 rate. This increased prevalence raises the need for youth development workers to be prepared to work with special needs youth.
Autism Speaks has developed the Leading the Way: Autism-Friendly Youth Organization Guide to better prepare youth-serving organizations to serve families with autism. This guide provides background information on autism, successful program practices, and identifies organizations that are developing programs and practices to attract and accommodate youth with disabilities. Here's a partial list of autism-friendly youth organizations:
- Big Brothers Big Sisters
- Boy Scouts of America
- Boys & Girls Clubs of America
- Girl Scouts of the USA
- Minnesota Conservation Corps
- National 4-H Council
- Staff education on autism and training on effective interventions
- Programs offering adaptive services for people with autism
- Affordable programs
- Opportunities for socialization with neuro-typical youth
How are we, as youth development professionals, preparing to serve an increasing number of young people with autism in our programs? What experiences have you had working with youth who have autism? What successful or unsuccessful strategies have you found? What resources do you feel you need in order to better serve these young people?
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