April 18, 2023 -April is recognized as Autism Awareness Month to increase understanding of the condition while supporting those affected by the disability. Despite the annual observance, many children with autism frequently experience discrimination. Furthermore, many of them, as well as their parents and caregivers, find it challenging to integrate into society due to the pervasive stigma associated with the disability.
In light of this ongoing challenge, Jamaican-born, special education teacher, Ro-Anna Thomas, believes that many people are unaware of the wide range of disabilities and how they affect children.
“Having autism doesn’t mean that there is something wrong, it just means that the individual’s brain thinks differently and that is okay. With the right support in place, they can learn to thrive and live a full life,” she said.
Thomas, who works with sixth graders in Connecticut, in the United States, spends time providing support for students who deal with mental, emotional, or physical disabilities.
“I support my students by assessing their skills and determining their educational needs; adapting the general education curriculum to meet their needs; developing, implementing, and updating Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), assessing and tracking student progress, as well as collaborating with parents, general education teachers, administrators, and other service providers to provide support and track progress for students, among other support,” she shared.
She said that autism, which is a spectrum, has a wide range of signs and the severity of the symptoms varies greatly. However, she noted that common signs tend to be difficulty with communication and social interactions, as well as obsessive and repetitive behaviors.
“For example, many of my students engaged in stimming (repetitive) behaviors but for some, it would be pacing or running back and forth, hand flapping, echolalia (meaningless repetition of words), among other signs,” she said.
In expressing her joy in working with special needs children, she said that autistic students are one of her favorite student groups because it challenges her to come up with innovative teaching strategies while providing support.
“My sister is a general education teacher, and she tells me all the time that she couldn’t do what I do. I always laugh but to be honest, I feel the same way about her work. Special education has my heart. There’s no better feeling than helping a student unlock and access the world around them. You’re teaching them in a way that is unique to them and that caters to the way in which they understand and process information,” she said.
While acknowledging that two of her biggest challenges are the unpredictability and the stigma that comes with working with students with disabilities, she is more concerned about parents who struggle with the reality of their child’s condition.
“I’ve found that being a parent to a child with autism can be very challenging, especially if the child exhibits severe symptoms. For many parents, they grieve the loss of a typical-functioning child. Some also feel guilty and will blame themselves because they feel that they might have caused the disability somehow. Some of them pretend that their child does not have a disability and will often hide it from friends and family,” she shared.
Thomas advises parents to love and cherish their children while giving them the support they require, despite the difficulties that come with raising children with disabilities like autism.
“Embrace them proudly and wholeheartedly. Early intervention is key so get help immediately. Do not ignore what your child needs in hopes that their disability will magically disappear. It will not, but you can teach them how to successfully live with it. Tap into your resources. If you don’t know where to go, start with your child’s pediatrician. Lastly, breathe, be patient, and do your best. At the end of the day, what your child needs is your love and unconditional support,” she further advised.
She added that “not enough people understand what autism is,” which adds to the persistence of stigma and discrimination, making it crucial for society to be educated on the disability.
“The more educated society becomes, the more open and accepting we will be towards those who not only have autism but those who have other disabilities as well. Autism awareness helps us to know how to relate to and aid in supporting those with autism. This will allow those with autism and their families to feel less isolated and more included in a world that tends to cater to those who are able-bodied and neurotypical.”
Thomas strongly believes that breaking the stigma surrounding autism will allow families to be more willing to get the services and support that they need for their children, which will enable those with autism to reach their full potential.