4/3/2013 9:01:00 AM Ambassador of America, emissary of Asperger's, to travel Europe
Facts about Autism
The United States recognizes April as National Autism Awareness Month, and a special opportunity for everyone to educate the public about autism.
The Autism Society website states that autism is a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life and affects a person's ability to communicate and interact with others.
Autism is defined by a certain set of behaviors and is a "spectrum disorder" that affects individuals differently and to varying degrees. There is no known single cause of autism, but increased awareness and funding can help families today.
In March 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that the prevalence of autism had risen to 1 in every 88 births in the United States and almost 1 in 54 boys. This past month, the CDC revised those numbers to 1 in 50 school-aged children, or 2 percent of children ages 6-17, have some form of autism. This is largely due to improved diagnosis by doctors or other health professionals in recent years.
Autism is treatable. Children do not outgrow autism, but studies show that early diagnosis and intervention lead to significantly improved outcomes.
Some signs to look for are:
Lack of or delay in spoken language.
Repetitive use of language and/or motor mannerisms, e.g., hand-flapping, twirling objects.
Little or no eye contact.
Lack of interest in peer relationships.
Lack of spontaneous or make-believe play.
Persistent fixation on parts of objects.
For more information about autism and Asperger's, visit autism-society.org, autismsciencefoundation.org, or aane.org (Asperger's Association of New England).
Emily Glenn, a junior at Arizona Agribusiness and Equine Center high school in Prescott Valley, will represent the U.S. this summer as part of a People to People student group that will visit Europe.
She knows a little bit of Italian and French, which will help in her travels through Italy and France, but very little of German, which won't help in Switzerland or Austria, Emily said.
Former President Dwight Eisenhower created People to People in 1956 to help people from different nations come together for cultural exchange. Part of Emily's preparation for the trip is to study the culture, customs and history of the countries she will visit.
The flip side of experiencing a different way of life as a People to People "Ambassador of Peace," is teaching about her own state and country. Emily, 16, also is an ambassador for people with disabilities.
"I'm not only from a different place, I'm also autistic," she said this past month at her school. "People think I look normal, but then think, 'She acts kind of strange.'"
Emily's mother, Kimberly Glenn, a teacher at Glassford Hill Middle School, said the diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome when Emily was in middle school "put all the puzzle pieces together."
"We knew Emily had some special needs and had been involved with speech therapy, occupational therapy and a developmental pediatric specialist since she was two," her mother said.
"Our expectations for Emily haven't changed; we still expect her to be successful in high school and go to college and graduate. But how that happens may not be the same as for a neurotypical child," she added.
Because the People to People ambassadors travel as a group, Emily thought it would be helpful to explain autism to her fellow travelers, and ask for help if she struggles with coping in new situations. She told them that she has difficulty with eye contact, and they need to tell her ahead of time if they want to offer a hug or touch her; her hugs to them must be of her own free will.
Touch and certain textures make her feel uncomfortable. She doesn't "do" bananas, for instance. White chocolate is okay, but dark or semisweet isn't. Denim pants bother her, but shorts don't.
Some people with forms of autism, such as Asperger's, have celiac disease, an inability to properly process wheat and other grains. For Emily, it causes rashes and an upset stomach.
"But no way am I saying no to Sicilian pizza!" she said with a grin.
She offered suggestions to the other students to help her with social skills. Tapping her on the shoulder if she gets too loud - "When I'm excited, I can't hear myself" - and telling her it's going to be OK if she gets anxious, especially in large crowds.
Students tour different countries where they stay in hotels and at homes with families participating in everyday activities. They also visit schools, and work on a service project.
Prior to departure, students study geography, history and government of the countries they will visit, and then take quizzes. They earn academic credit at the end of the trip.
Teachers nominate students based on their maturity and leadership skills. Emily's mother said the "differences" Emily exhibits doesn't mean she is less than a "normal" child.
"We are very proud of where Emily is and the successes she has had despite her challenges. I am terrified to send her to Europe without one of us. I do know that she needs this, and I think it will challenge her boundaries as well of those she is traveling with and make them better people," she said, adding that she is impressed with how well run the People to People program is.