As the saying goes, “It is OK to make mistakes, as long as you learn from them,” and a recent editorial published here in the Richmond Times-Dispatch has provided our local community with an opportunity to share, listen, and learn from one another.

Our team at the Autism Society Central Virginia (ASCV; www.ascv.org) has appreciated the chance to collaborate with The Times-Dispatch to open a dialogue about autism.

For more than 30 years, the ASCV has served as the region’s premier source of education, advocacy, services, and supports for individuals with autism, their families, friends, and professionals.

Our mission is to improve the lives of all affected by autism by maximizing the self-sufficiency, independence, and quality of life for all living with autism in our community. We are committed to meaningful participation and self-determination in all aspects of life for individuals on the autism spectrum and their families.

As an independent organization and not a direct service provider, the ASCV serves a neutral role in the community of being a strong voice for families and individuals living with autism. Our unique position strengthens our ability to be a leader, as well as a unifying voice, in the local autism and disability communities.

Over the course of three meetings with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, our ASCV team organized a group of local stakeholders and participated in a productive and meaningful discussion that focused on the importance of inclusion within the community for all individuals with autism. As we highlighted the ways in which we can work together as a community to foster further acceptance and inclusion, the 76th RTD Public Square was born.

In order to set the stage for the Public Square scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 30, we felt an op-ed sharing important details about autism was in order, with the goal of educating readers about the diversity of autism and providing informational resources. The goal of the ASCV is to raise awareness, acceptance, and inclusion, and this string of events is proving to be the vehicle to do just that.

An Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can be defined as a lifelong developmental disability that impacts an individual’s ability to communicate, interpret language, and interact with others. The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that as many as one in every 59 children in the United States has autism. This means most of us are touched by autism in one way or another. Autism is seen in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds, but prevalence rates suggest it is more common in boys. The first signs of ASD are typically present before the age of 3.

As the name indicates, there is a significant and complex range of symptoms that can present in any combination and range in severity. Just as is with all human beings, no two individuals with autism are the same. Each individual with autism has his or her own unique set of strengths, abilities, interests, and challenges. As Dr. Stephen Shore, an adult with autism, says, “if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” Challenges can include, but are not limited to, impairment in social communication and interaction, and the presence of restricted or repetitive patterns of behavior. Some individuals on the spectrum have difficulty with eye contact and making conversation, where others are nonverbal and use assistive technology to communicate. Some individuals stim (repeat physical movements, sounds, or words), fidget, or pace when excited or anxious. Many with ASD have amazing abilities to focus intently on subjects of interest, whether it be trains, reciting an entire Disney movie, or the ability to debug a computer software program. All individuals on the autism spectrum have something unique to contribute, if just given the chance to be included.

For more information and support services, please visit our website at www.ascv.org. In addition, the VCU Autism Center for Excellence (https://vcuautismcenter.org) has comprehensive resources and trainings available.

At this Wednesday’s Public Square, the ASCV is proud to assist the RTD in bringing together a panel that represents the diversity of the autism spectrum. The panel includes: Dr. M. Taruj Ali, medical director, Pulmonary Associates of Richmond Sleep Clinics, and parent of a child with autism; Shantell Davis, LPN, Bon Secours and VCU Children’s Hospital, and parent of a child with autism; Hallie Hovey-Murray, self-advocate, law student at William & Mary, and president of One in 68 Foundation; Heidi Lawyer, executive director, Virginia Board for People with Disabilities and parent of an adult with autism; and Dr. Paul Wehman, director of the Autism Center for Excellence and director of the VCU Rehabilitation Research and Training Center.

The 76th Public Square continues the important conversation about inclusion for all individuals with autism and how we can work together to foster further acceptance and understanding.

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Ann Flippin, executive director of the Autism Society Central Virginia, has more than 10 years of development and nonprofit management experience. Additionally, she has a 27-year-old brother with autism and has experienced firsthand the challenges faced by individuals and families in the autism community. Contact her at Ann.Flippin@ascv.org.

Sarah Doyle, Ph.D., program and outreach director of the Autism Society Central Virginia, has extensive training in developmental disabilities, child and adolescent development, program development and evaluation, and community-based interventions. Contact her at Sarah.Doyle@ascv.org.

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