“It’s a lonely place when you’re neurologically different,” Graham said. “Even the highest functioning (on the autism spectrum) need to be cared for in a way that’s helpful, not condescending.”
Graham was diagnosed with autism when she was 45. She said awareness is important because while many parents make a point to help their children who are on the spectrum, it’s easy for undiagnosed adults to slip through the cracks.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate 1 in 68 children are affected by autism, making it the most common developmental disability.
For Autism Awareness Month in April, the Town of Chapel Hill coordinated several events for the autistic community. The last event will be a sensory-friendly playtime on April 27 at Kidzu Children’s Museum.
“We want the museum to be a safe space — that’s the point,” said Sydney Lewis, coordinator of the playtime at Kidzu. “So (those on the spectrum) can explore the museum without a sensory overload of a lot of children.”
The playtime event at Kidzu is free to any children with special needs, but families must register beforehand. There will only be 30 spots in order to regulate the extra stimulation found during a typically busy hour at a museum.
“We’re hoping for a good turnout,” Lewis said. “Getting out to the special needs community is important.”
There will be three stations at the playtime: a sensory activity where children dig to find jewels, a gross motor activity of a rock climbing wall and a fine motor activity of putting together fake food parents order. There will also be book nooks for children to calm down if the event becomes overwhelming.
“There are a lot of families that experience isolation with a family member on (the autism) spectrum,” said Catherine Medovich, autism source specialist at the Autism Society. “It’s nice to have places where local families can get into the community and feel like they’re a part of something bigger.”
Push Play Sing, a group that empowers disabled individuals to play music, performed a free concert for Autism Awareness Month on Friday.
“It’s important for everyone to know that they are in the community and just as strong as anyone,” said Max Puhala, co-founder of Push Play Sing. “So many generally perceive (those on the spectrum) as not as much ability, but they hop right in, play music just as awesome if not better than a lot of people out there.”
Push Play Sing will offer several workshops throughout the month of May to allow performers with disabilities of all experience levels the opportunity to showcase their musical talent. The Town of Chapel Hill also offers specialized activities throughout the year, including year-round sports training.
“People often misunderstand a diagnosis of autism to mean ‘intellectually disabled’ when often, they have exceptional abilities in a certain area.” said Jacklyn Googins, a volunteer with Best Buddies, an international organization that pairs community members with developmental and intellectual disabilities with students. “I think we need to focus on the strengths of people with this diagnosis rather than the limitations.”