SEATTLE - April is Autism Acceptance Month. New data from the University of British Columbia shows nearly 78% of all children on the autism spectrum have at least one mental health condition, and nearly half have multiple.
You can only imagine how life during the pandemic has been for those children and their families, some parents telling us it’s difficult to describe. But as families navigate through the challenges there are ways every single one of us can help make a difference.
Anna Olson’s 18-year-old son AJ is on the autism spectrum.
"He is nonverbal, so he speaks very few words. So a lot of his life is through experience."
She says AJ’s main diagnosis is autism, but says he has multiple mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression, which the isolation of the pandemic has worsened.
"What little kind of socializing and contact and words that he had now have gone completely away."
Olson says her family watched AJ turn into a different person and began self-harming.
"When the self harming started, it was, to be honest, crushing for us as parents because he already can't communicate, he already can't say ‘hey I’m feeling lonely and depressed or I miss people, and I don’t understand am I being punished for something?' You don’t know what’s in their heads and it's heartbreaking because we felt like there was nothing we could literally do to help him, and he was just spiraling out of control."
Olson says it was a very hopeless time for the whole family.
"It felt like a fight for his life at a certain point for us."
Finally, things are slowly looking up. AJ is now able to be back in school four days a week. Olson says having that social interaction is making a huge impact; finally she feels she’s getting her son back.
"His soul had so withered and his personality and who he was had so disappeared that I almost forgot how beautiful and funny and happy he used to be."
According to the CDC, 1 in every 54 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
"Just ask what you can do. I think that’s the most powerful thing that anyone can do."
Olson says often people worry about asking questions about her son or other children on the spectrum because they’re afraid they might say the wrong thing , but she says this just adds to the family’s isolation. She encourages you to ask questions; be curious.
"Just include our kids, and talk to us. Talk to the parents and be interested. I think you'll find that our kids are different, but are also delightful and can have a lot of good things to contribute as well."
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