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‘Dramatic Increase’ in Autism

Expert helps Churchill close out “Autism Awareness” month.

Stuart Spielman, Senior Policy Advisor and Counsel, Autism Speaks.

Stuart Spielman, Senior Policy Advisor and Counsel, Autism Speaks.

— “More children are diagnosed each year with autism than with type 1 diabetes, childhood cancer and cystic fibrosis combined. The U.S. Government spends $126 billion on autism each year — and it will only go up because we must provide housing, employment, education, healthcare and community services for each autistic person.”

These are just a few of the statistics that Stuart Spielman, Senior Policy Advisor and Counsel, Autism Speaks, shared with Churchill students during a lunch-time seminar on autism. Spielman, who is responsible for managing Federal Government Affairs, advocates on Capitol Hill and before federal agencies for research and services that can improve the lives of children and adults on the autism spectrum. Spielman is also a Churchill parent.

The presentation ended “April is Autism Awareness Month” program at Churchill High School — a month filled with morning announcements about autism, sports events dedicated to “Light up the Blue” and many other activities. Churchill is the first Montgomery County high school to formally organize a comprehensive series of Autism Awareness activities.

The students attended the presentation voluntarily. One student stated that her mom and aunt work with students who are autistic. Another explained that he was interested in studying psychology and wanted to better understand autism.

Lynde Thai, transition teacher at Churchill, helps students who are in the two autism programs at Churchill find employment. She chose to attend to gain the latest information about autism.

Speilman stated that he lobbies for funding from the Federal government for autism research. He noted that the number of children with autism has gone from 1 in 5,000 in 1975 to 1 in 88 in 2012.

“This dramatic increase in the number of identified children with autism is partly because of better identification tools,” he said. “Autism is easier to identify now because there is a greater awareness of symptoms, social influences, increased access to services, diagnostic substitutes (it may have been called something else) and environmental factors such as parental age, pre-term births, toxins and chemicals, medical interventions and immune factors. Researchers are also starting to understand the genetics of autism.”

He added: “More needs to be done and greater funds are needed. There must be a comprehensive strategy developed and we need to better understand the genetics. “He also advocated for more environmental research, earlier diagnosis, recruitment of more therapists, teachers and service providers, and more funding for research into the causes of autism.

During a question and answer session, Thai explained that autistic students have difficulty with employment interviews. She said, “Many autistic students do not have the social skills for interviews. It is really hard for them to look someone in the eye and make small talk. Many are in AP classes and plan to attend a 4-year university. However, interviewing skills are difficult for everyone — and particularly for an autistic student.”

Susan Pereles, event director of Autism Speaks, Capital Area mentioned that some of the students in the autism program at Churchill don’t have anyone to have lunch with. “It would be wonderful if the ‘Best Buddies’ program could pair students up and they could eat lunch together once a week. They feel socially isolated and it would help them with their social skills.”

Pereles also noted that many students wanted to know, “What can I do to help?” She suggested that students join the Churchill team at the Autism Speaks 5K Race on July 4 in Potomac to raise money for research. “You can make a difference by registering for the Churchill team and participating in the race — and you can also help us by putting up flyers to advertise the race and by telling your friends and family.”