Kindness and Support Create Inclusivity for People with Autism
April Is Autism Awareness Month
MERCERVILLE – In recognition of social struggles common among individuals with autism, Autism New Jersey and the Visiting Nurse Association of Central Jersey (VNACJ) are partnering to provide vaccinations to state residents with autism and other developmental disabilities. This is because a majority of state-organized vaccination sites are located at mega-sites, including malls, which could be a barrier for people with autism spectrum disorder because of the anxiety that these social situations can create. VNACJ’s Monmouth County Clinic in Holmdel hosts this special clinic that includes parking accommodations, limited wait times and special access to avoid public waiting areas.
“I admire the efforts that Autism New Jersey and the Visiting Nurse Association of Central New Jersey are taking to make it easier for individuals with autism to receive COVID-19 vaccinations,” Debra L. Wentz, President and CEO of New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies, Inc. (NJAMHAA). “Initiatives like this one, as well as education of the general population, are essential to help mitigate social anxiety and hopefully help prevent bullying, which are common experiences among people with developmental disabilities.”
Autism is a complex, lifelong developmental disability that impacts a person’s communicative abilities, self-regulation, relationships and social skills, which, in turn, affects the individuals’ abilities to develop relationships with peers and family members. Symptoms include restricted or repetitive behaviors, such as intense interests, repeating sounds, phrases, movements and routines. A study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders found that young adults with autism are often socially excluded and often do not see friends or receive invitations to social gatherings. The National Autistic Society identified some of the reasons for this exclusion as the communicative and social difficulties associated with autism and individuals with the disorder having prior negative experiences in social situations and are trying to prevent negative events, such as bullying, from occurring again.
Students with autism can experience bullying for being “special education students” or for characteristics that are associated with their disorder. Some individuals with autism are targeted because of an inability to recognize sarcasm and subtleties in speech, which results in an inability to
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defend themselves. There are also racial and ethnic disparities in the diagnosis of autism. The Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention notes that more White children are diagnosed with an autism
spectrum disorder than Hispanic and Black children due to stigma, lack of access to healthcare services or a primary language barrier. These barriers can add to vulnerability among adolescents with autism as targets for bullying and could result in social isolation.
Children with autism who experience bullying can develop depression and anxiety as a result. However, some teenagers with autism who are bullied can become more aggressive, which can
lead to uncontrollable, emotional outbursts. During these outbursts, the individuals can cause harm to others or to themselves. A study published in Autism Research finds that adolescents with autism spectrum disorder who experienced bullying were twice as likely to develop suicidal tendencies over time, compared to their peers. The study included 680 students between the ages of 13 and 18 years old who were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and were receiving mental health services. Forty-four percent of the adolescents who reported bullying early in their treatment expressed that they experienced suicidal thoughts or behaviors.
“Children with autism who experience bullying may have a difficult time expressing that they are being bullied due to their disorder. Additionally, the outbursts that a child with autism might have may not be connected to the sadness or anger that they feel because they are being bullied. Children with autism who are struggling with mental illness and do not have it addressed can camouflage these issues as adults, as well as their behaviors associated with autism spectrum disorder, in order to fit into their communities,” Dr. Wentz said. “This can be particularly damaging to a person’s mental health and impact them as adults where they can continue to experience bullying in the workplace or feel isolated from their coworkers. Educating people about autism can lead to individuals with autism being treated with understanding and kindness, which can make a positive difference in their health and well-being.”
April is Autism Awareness Month, which was created by the Autism Society of America to empower individuals with autism and to educate individuals about autism. This year’s theme is “Inclusion in the Workplace: Challenges and Opportunities in a Post-Pandemic World”. According to the United Nations, individuals with autism often experience discriminatory hiring practices, workplaces with obstacles that interfere with their job performance and workplace bullying. Not only can this result in unemployment and underemployment in the autism community, but it can also negatively impact mental health. In addition to creating inclusive and accommodating employment programs, it is important to educate individuals about autism, which can lead to more inclusivity and kindness.
The New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies, Inc. (NJAMHAA) is a statewide trade association representing more than 150 organizations that serve New Jersey residents with mental illness and/or substance use disorders, and their families. NJAMHAA members may be found in every county and almost every community statewide. They serve more than 500,000 children and adults each year and contribute to the economy through 61,000 direct and indirect jobs. NJAMHAA’s mission is to promote the value of its members as the highest quality behavioral healthcare providers for the residents of New Jersey through advocacy and professional development.