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Autism Awareness Month is opportunity to educate, inform

April is Autism Awareness Month, and for Rebecca Rienzi, executive director of Pathfinders for Autism, an organization dedicated to providing support services to people with Autism and their families, the month serves as a chance to put a positive spin on a disorder sometimes branded negatively.

"This month, our Autism awareness campaign is focusing on celebrating individuals' [with autism] passions and talents," she said. "So often when you hear about an individual with Autism, there's a focus on their obsession ... and it's not always expressed in a positive way. But all of these individuals have such amazing minds and talents."

To her, the month is about celebrating the gifts and abilities unique to each individual with Autism.

"We don't want to focus on the negative aspects," she said. "There are lots of challenges that come along with raising a child with Autism and living a life with Autism, but there are also so many things that we can celebrate. We don't want to minimize the fact that it's a challenging disorder and it can be disruptive in one's life, but we also want to recognize that these people who have been diagnosed with Autism have lots of positive attributes that we can celebrate."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new findings regarding the prevalence of Autism in the United States at the end of March, indicating a sizable jump from previous numbers. The report found that an average of 1 in 68 children has Autism, which marks a 30% rise from the findings of the 2012 study.

As research continues to be conducted into the causes and ranges of Autism, many groups use the month of April as an opportunity to raise awareness about the disorder within the community. From walks and fundraisers to lectures and workshops, numerous events are scheduled to raise awareness and increase community involvement.

As founder and president of the Shafer Institute for Early Intervention in Owings Mills, and as the parent of a child with Autism, Helen Shafer said she likes the wide range of events taking place during the month of awareness.

"I think that having Autism Awareness Month is really great," she said. "I actually told a friend yesterday that it should really be 'Autism Awareness Season' because there's so much that the community has put on that it's hard to get to everything in one month."

She also said she recognizes the opportunities for educating the community that the month affords.

"It helps the community understand better 'what does Autism mean?'" she said. "Unlike other disabilities, you can't look at someone and say that they're Autistic or not - you can't see it - so getting a better understanding of what that means [is important]. The diagnosis is very prevalent and everybody in their communities is going to have to work with, deal with, learn, know about Autism, because it will affect everybody."

Shafer said that community awareness and understanding of Autism has come a long way since her son, Hayden, was diagnosed with the disorder just under 10 years ago.

"I think that there's been so much public awareness over the past decade that it really has helped communities understand a little bit better," Shafer said. "Ten years ago I probably wouldn't have said that, but I think now there's much more awareness."

However, both she and Rienze said they still believe there is work to be done in the education of the public. Part of that ongoing instruction means providing training to first responders, police officers and other public safety workers in how to better handle situations that arise with individuals with Autism or similar disorders.

Pathfinders for Autism is just one organization that provides such training. Rienzi said that first responders in Maryland have already made great strides to train their personnel in such areas.

"There's actually been a really intense effort here in Maryland to prepare first responders," she said. "The first responder community has made it a priority to be more aware of people with developmental disabilities, especially people with autism."

However, she said, continued education and awareness is of utmost importance to ensuring that all interactions are conducted in the safest, smartest manner.

"They need to have the information and tools to have the best outcome from that interaction," she said.

Though Rienzi and Shafer both stated that much of the negative stereotyping of Autism has diminished over the past 10 years, they agree that misconceptions about the disorder still exist.

"Autism is mistaken or confused with a mental illness; it is not a mental illness," Rienzi said. There's still perpetuation of connecting a diagnosis with an assumption of violent behavior or non-intelligent behavior, so we need to work on the stigma and how the media represents individuals [with autism]."

Shafer also mentioned the need to focus on the intelligence and talent of people with Autism.

"I do think that it's important also for the community to realize that these kids are so smart," she said. "They want to do things and they want to be social and they want to be part of the community."

As Autism Awareness Month continues to garner more community support, Shafer hopes to see it expand even more in the future to include more social understanding of what it means to live with Autism.

"I think there still needs to be a deeper understanding and maybe a deeper look within Autism Awareness Month of what the areas of need are with kids on the spectrum - so what does it really mean to not have communication skills or social skills? - to get the public kind of aware of what that really means ... and it's a spectrum remember, so every single child is different, so what does that look like?"

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