April is Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month

This article appeared in the April 2023 edition of the Chickasaw Times

Governor Bill Anoatubby, in conjunction with the Autism Foundation of Oklahoma, has declared April Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month.

“The Chickasaw Nation is honored to take part in the annual observance of Autism Acceptance and Awareness Month and World Autism Day to address the diverse needs of individuals and families affected by autism,” Gov. Anoatubby said in the proclamation announcing the Chickasaw Nation’s participation.

Dr. Shannon Dial, executive officer of Integrated Services in the Chickasaw Nation Department of Family Services, said while increasing awareness is important, it is only part of the goal.

“Calling attention to autism is designed to promote education and inclusion for those walking the autism journey by standing in unity with autistic Chickasaw Nation citizens and their families, Dr. Dial said.

“The purpose of Autism Awareness Month is to expand awareness and comfortability with the diagnosis. Not only with children and adults with autism, but we want to bring awareness to people of the disorder and the importance of getting screened, assessed and diagnosed early.”

Dr. Dial said families sometimes waited too long before expressing their concerns to their child’s doctor.

“They’re not seeing their pediatrician regularly,” she said. “There’s a key window for autism spectrum disorder being diagnosed because it’s a developmental disorder. The earlier people can be diagnosed the better.”

Early intervention allows for appropriate treatment to help in key developmental areas such as language, motor skills and communication.

“The earlier you can help them the better they are set to engage in school and social activities in their later years,” she said. “The Chickasaw Nation wants to be on the forefront of offering help in that early window that’s so very important.”

Dr. Dial said another area of concern was the perception of the general public who may be standoffish when being around someone with autism.

“There is a stigma around autism where people might judge quickly and say, ‘What’s wrong with that kid?’ or ‘Why are they so weird?’ Increasing acceptance and awareness makes us all a bit more sympathetic to families we might know and understanding just how different their lifestyle is to accommodate their child.

“It opens our minds to consider they might be autistic. It decreases that amount of stigma and judgment in that moment,” she said.

The Autism Foundation of Oklahoma says an estimated one child in 44 is affected by autism. Autism impacts each person differently, which presents unique challenges often involving verbal and nonverbal communication, social interaction and repetitive behaviors.

The disorder can affect anyone regardless of age, race, ethnicity, gender or socioeconomic background.

The National Autism Association said a recent study found the mortality risk among those with autism was nearly twice that of the general population.

The Association said it was simultaneously the fastest growing developmental disorder and the most underfunded. Boys are four times more likely than girls to suffer its consequences.

“Additionally, autism in Indian Country is less discussed and our tribal families often have more difficulty acquiring support and services,” Dr. Dial said. 

A wide range of supports and services are available for those with autism. Children with autism can and do progress with early intervention key to positive outcomes.

Gov. Anoatubby’s proclamation communicates early diagnosis and intervention tailored to individual needs can have lifelong benefits, easing the transition to adulthood and fostering greater independence.

“Each person and family affected by autism should have access to reliable information, supports and opportunities to live up to their greatest potential,” Gov. Anoatubby said in the proclamation.