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Educate and Advocate During Autism Awareness Month

By Lily Eskelsen, Vice President of the National Education Association and Mom Congress Advisor

In just a little way, it touched my life. The little girl and the little boy were seated in the row in front of me. On an airplane, it's better to have kids in front of you, because behind you, they'll sometimes kick the seat. Dad was with them. Mom was across the aisle. Even as we were being seated, I could tell something was different. The little boy with the angel face was shouting and thrashing. Dad was calm. Mom was calm. The lady in the middle seat next to me said, in what I'm sure she thought was a discreet whisper, "People just spoil their children these days."

Mom jumped up to hand something to Dad, and that's when I saw her T-shirt. It read: My child has autism. Questions are welcome. Parenting advice is not.

Autism has likely touched your life in some way. Maybe it was the little girl who lived on your block or your son's classmate. Perhaps you are the parent of a child diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder or ASD.

The reality is that autism affects one in every 110 children and one in 70 boys.

April is Autism Awareness Month and I encourage you to educate yourself and others. Members of Mom Congress should also advocate for resources to help support children diagnosed with ASD.

The National Education Association (NEA) is offering a free, online workshop that brings the information right to your home with just a few keystrokes. In addition to explaining autism, the workshop describes strategies teachers and parents can use to help students with ASD succeed in school.

There are a number of things that teachers can do in the classroom and parents can reinforce at home. Students with ASD have trouble understanding and using language. Parents and teachers can use pictures, books, films, videos or plays that allow students to use their strong visual skills. Also, try putting up visual instructions, routines and expectations around the house or classroom. These simple tactics can help lower the anxiety for students with ASD.

Things you say are important, too. Use signal phrases like "This is important" or "Remember this" to highlight key ideas or directions. You can learn more tips in the online workshop or by downloading a copy of NEA's Puzzle of Autism guide.

In terms of advocacy, here's where you come in, Mom Congress. There needs to be more funding for research to discover other techniques and strategies to help children with ASD. We need to invest in smaller class sizes. Did you know that for a child with ASD, the recommended student/teacher ratio is three to one, or less? Students with ASD tend to struggle in two areas…language and social skills. We need you to also advocate for programs that teach appropriate behavior and social interaction.

I'm a lessons come naturally to me. Under a federal law called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA), every child with a disability is guaranteed a free and appropriate public education. But Congress has not kept its promise to fully fund the law. If you want lawmakers to invest in strategies that support children with ASD, send them an email and tell them how you feel.

The brave mom and dad on my airplane need more than your sympathy. They need you and me and everyone to understand and to do something about it. Ignoring a crisis doesn't make it go away. Watch the free NEA workshop online. Write that email to your member of Congress. Let autism touch your life in a way that makes life better for a child with autism.