Kids with Autism Make a Difference

May 2014

Incredible Kids with Autism Make a Difference

Orange County is a hub for world-class organizations that offer support to families with autism. See how one school involves its students in the democratic process.

Volunteering at the polls on Election Day is always an enriching experience.  But this is especially true when it comes to the students at New Vista School who have Asperger’s Syndrome, high-functioning Autism, and language-learning disabilities.

“It’s one of our core values, to get the kids out into the community,” said John Bowen, Director of Operations at New Vista (www.newvistaschool.org).  “Awkwardness with people is a very characteristic trait of autism.  Volunteering at the polls helps them to grow.  They have fun and they do a great job.  It’s a real confidence-builder.”

Surprisingly, one in 68 children in the U.S. has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  This is a striking 30% increase from only two years ago.  Most children with autism are male.  The CDC estimates 1 in 42 boys has autism; that’s 4.5 times as many as girls (1 in 189).

There are more than 30,000 people with autism in Orange County, according to the Orange County Regional Center.  The Regional Center is able to serve just 6,000.

Teachers often refer to this alarming statistical trend as the “tsunami of autism.”  Kenneth Bock, M.D., author of Healing the New Childhood Epidemics: Autism, ADHD, Asthma, and Allergies, say autism is an epidemic.

 “Behind these numbers are real people,” said Debora Smith, a family autism consultant, (www.autismresourcemom.com), mother of a son who has Asperger’s Syndrome (a form of autism), and former president of the Orange County Asperger’s Support Group (www.ocaspergers.org).  “This is a great opportunity because it forces our kids out of their comfort zone and into real life situations, which is something they need on a constant basis.  Their comfort zone is usually inside their bedroom, browsing websites on the Internet, or playing computer games.  That doesn’t prepare them for the future.  On Election Day, helping voters teaches these kids valuable real-world work skills and gets them out of their comfort zone.  It’s a win-win for everybody.”

Vernon Smith, who won of the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2002, has Asperger’s Syndrome.  He talks freely about his own autism.  “We are different, but not inferior,” Smith said in a profile aired on NBC News.  He got his Ph.D. from Harvard University and now holds the George L. Argyros Endowed Chair in Finance and Economics at Chapman University in Orange.  “Not all people with autism are savants, but we often have strengths and gifts that give us selective advantages,” he said.  “We often think in special ways.  There’s no doubt in my mind that I would not have won the Nobel Prize if I did not have autism.”

“It’s true.  Our kids have great strengths.  They can contribute so much to the world,” said Kim Mason, whose daughter has autism.  “We need to focus more on that, instead of just the challenges.  All they need is an opportunity.”  Kim founded American Aspergers United (www.meetup.com/AmericanAspergersUnited), an Orange County organization that serves more than 100 families.  Her group organizes archery, bouncing on trampolines, teen nights, beach parties, hiking and other fun events that challenge kids with autism and encourage them to mix.  “Self-advocacy and self-confidence is very important for them,” Kim said.  “When they’re good at something and they know they’re valued, it’s huge for them.”

John Bowen started as a teacher at New Vista School in Laguna Hills when the school opened in 2006 and rose up the ranks.  At that time it had only 22 students.  New Vista has now grown to 82 students ranging from grades 6-12 +.  He strongly encourages the older kids to volunteer on Election Day.  “Young kids don’t have a lot of experience they can put on their resume,” Bowen said, “so working on the election gives them something good they can talk about.  Plus it gives them practical skills that can help them get a job.  An added benefit is that they get to see democracy in action.”

Austin Hershey, an 18-year-old student at New Vista who has Asperger’s Syndrome, volunteered in 2012 at the Yorba Linda Country Club, a polling place near where he lives.  He served as both a Roster and Street Index clerk.  “It was really interesting,” he said.  “I met lots of people.  I felt like I had power.  People treated me with respect.  I feel like I did a good job.  It was challenging but it was fun.”

Koichi Akahori, also 18 and a New Vista student, volunteered at a school in La Habra.  He served as a Roster, Street Index, and JBC clerk.  “It was interesting to see how people vote,” he said.  “It was busy in the morning, but then it got boring because we had a slow day after that.  A veteran from World War II came by and he told us stories.  I liked meeting new people.  It was a good experience.  I would do it again.”

Bonnie Gillman, a member of the California State Taskforce on Autism, said, “Autism is not an intellectual deficit, it’s a social deficit.  Working at the polls on Election Day not only helps the students earn community service credits, but it helps them gain confidence socially.  A smile is a support.  Your support and a smile will go a long way to reassuring these young people.”  Gillman founded the nonprofit Grandparent Autism Network (www.ganinfo.org) and the Family Autism Network (www.faninfo.org) in Orange County in 2006.  Now the GAN and FAN websites are supporting families around the world.  “It’s not only the kids with autism who need support, but the parents and grandparents as well,” she noted.

“Having kids on the autistic spectrum to work at the polls on Election Day is a great idea because they are wonderful assets,” said Lisa Ackerman, founder and executive director of TACA (Talk About Curing Autism) (www.tacanow.org), an Orange County nonprofit which now serves close to 30,000 families across the U.S.  Lisa points out how difficult it is not only for the kids with autism, but for the families.  “When you get the autism diagnosis there’s not even a brochure,” she said.  If you’re like I was, you feel lost and you’re looking for friends.  TACA started in my living room, it was just parents like myself.  Our message is: Come to us.  We’ll help you.  We’ll get you the information you need.  Out programs are free.  You need to get out of your home and be part of a community.  Once you do that, it doesn’t hurt as much because you know there are other folks walking the same walk you’re walking everyday.  We want to help families go from frustration to action for their kids.”  One of the moms told Ackerman that “TACA makes hope a verb.”

“I believe in something extremely controversial,” Ackerman added.  “People with autism can grow to become meaningful members of society and can contribute to their full ability.”

Fortunately for us, Orange County is a hub for world-class organizations that offer support to families with autism.  If your child or someone you love is on the autistic spectrum, why not reach out?