VIRGINIA BEACH (WAVY) — April is Autism Awareness Month, but those who work with Virginia Beach Parks and Recreation want to take that one step further. They are celebrating Autism Acceptance Month, and you can too.
“Right now about one in 54 children are diagnosed with autism, and there’s a statistic out there that says there are 5.4 million American adults with autism,” said Jordan Vaughan, and Inclusion Specialist with Virginia Beach Parks and Recreation.
Because of those staggering numbers, Vaughan, Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist Caitlyn Hall, and their fellow members of the Virginia Beach Parks and Recreation Inclusion Unit made it their mission to spread both awareness and acceptance.
Vaughan says first it is important to understand autism is “a neurological difference and that it really affects the way that the individual perceives the world around them.”
Hall says acceptance begins when society relaxes.
“Some of the aspects of Autism that are seen as difficulties, it’s because society has these social rules that are so strict, and there are some things that it’s not hurting you. Like, you don’t need to guarantee that they have eye contact. If they’re stimming, so if they’re jumping or hand flapping or making a certain noise or something you don’t need to stare at them. You can just kind of let them do what they’re doing, and kind of be more accepting of that as normal than trying to get them to stop,” said Hall.
She also says if you notice someone is non-speaking, or using a communication device, or signing, you can still talk to them.
“Odds are someone that they’re with are going to be able to help translate if it’s in sign language or if they’re communicating in a way you might not understand, or if they have that tablet or device, they can use that to respond to you. You don’t need to look to the caregiver to say, ‘What do they want?’ or ‘What do they need?’ Talk to the person. I think that’s the biggest thing, accepting them as who they are.”
Virginia Beach Parks and Rec works on inclusion year-round, but for this month of April, they are laser focused on those with autism. At the front desk of all centers, as well as online, there’s a survey where you can submit a question you would want someone with autism to answer.
“We’re going to be coordinating with individuals on the spectrum, as well as their caregivers or family members to get them to answer those questions, and we’ll be making a video to post about mid-month,” Hall said.
You will find decorating competitions throughout the rec centers, including a wall of fame that includes celebrities and athletes with autism.
“There are really, really successful people out there that are on the spectrum and that we should celebrate that,” Vaughan said.
Vaughan also wants families to be aware of their water safety program for family members who are on the spectrum.
“Water safety is something that the autism community finds really, really important. People on the spectrum are drawn to water for whatever reason. It could be calming or soothing. So, being safe around water is really, really important. In the past, when we were able to do in person events, we had a water safety day called Splash Day where we were partnered with the Tidewater Autism Society where we focus on water safety tips for the individuals and their caregivers, but since we can’t do that right now given the circumstances, we are creating a video for instructors and for families so that they have those water safety tips at their fingertips.”
If you are interested in joining the Virginia Beach Parks & Rec private Facebook group for Therapeutic Rec and Inclusion Services, click here.