Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month
Every year in March there are campaigns across the nation to bring awareness to Developmental Disabilities. This is a time where individuals with and without disabilities can share their experiences, their stories, and their advocacy for justice, equity, and inclusion. This is an opportune time for communities to unite and join forces with individuals with disabilities to advocate for resources for schools and education, resources for accessible sidewalks and buildings, and resources for the full spectrum of healthcare (physical, mental, emotional, social, and recreational). You may not be aware of this, but President Ronald Regan recognized March as Developmental Disabilities awareness month in 1987. His goal was to “increase the public awareness of the needs and potential of Americans with developmental disabilities” and provide the “encouragement and opportunities they need to lead productive lives and to achieve their full potential” (National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities, 2023). 1 in 6 children, ages 3-17, are diagnosed with a developmental disability in the United States between 2009-2017 (Zablotsky et al., 2019).
Autism Acceptance Month
April’s Autism Awareness began with a campaign in 1972 called the “National Autistic Children’s Week”, this eventually changed into what became Autism Awareness month, and now it is known as Autism Acceptance month (National Today, 2023). The Autism Society’s goals are to increase acceptance and ignite change, and ultimately improve outcomes for individuals and families who experience autism (National Today, 2023). Autism spectrum disorder is classified as a developmental disability, and everyone will have their own specific set of strengths, challenges, and difficulties. Some of these areas include communication, sensory processing, social skills, adaptive skills, and behavior. Individuals may need a range of supports from very little, where they will be able to live completely independent, to needing significant daily support from one or more people (National Today, 2023). According to the CDC, autism rates are as high as1 in 44, and are 4 times higher in boys (Maenner et al., 2021).
The Connection with Mental Health
You may be asking why I am talking about this subject? Well, the answer is this; these are two populations whose mental health tends to get ignored and is very much at risk. There is evidence that shows youth with autism spectrum disorder have higher rates of depression and suicide than their neurotypical peers (Mayes et al., 2013). Researchers have found some evidence that “twice exceptional youth”, those with autism and have high IQ’s (120 or higher), are at an increased risk of suicidal thoughts compared to neurotypical youth in the same IQ range (Brown, 2023). This is concerning as high IQ has long been thought to be a protective factor against suicidal ideation (Brown, 2023). Individuals with developmental disabilities tend to experience higher rates of mental health conditions, but many times they do not receive appropriate mental health treatment due to the lack of understanding, training, and education about the specific needs of this population (Pinals et al., 2022).
Awareness, Acceptance, and Advocacy
Children and youth with developmental disabilities, including autism, may need specialized support at school. This may be even more important when they need mental health supports. Schools are in a unique position where they not only provide education, but they have resources to provide social-emotional learning for our children; this is a prime opportunity for all children to learn how to interact, foster self-management, and work cooperatively.
Justice, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (Time to Celebrate!)
I encourage everyone to take time to celebrate the diversity of people in this world. I encourage you to be inclusive of everyone, no matter their ability (or any other reason). Advocate for resources so that schools and communities can assure equitable access to buildings, sidewalks, education, and services, especially individualized education, and mental health services. By doing all of this we will increase educationally opportunities, increase pro-social behavior, and reduce mental health disparities for individuals with developmental disabilities, including autism.
Brown, J. (2023). Autism combined with high IQ increases risk of suicidal thoughts. https://uihealthcare.org
Maenner, M., Shaw, K., Bakian, A., et al. (2021). Prevalence and characteristics of autism spectrum disorder among children aged 8 years – autism and developmental disabilities monitoring network, 11 sites, United States, 2018. MMWR Surveill Summ, 70(11) 1-16. Doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.ss7011a1
National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities (2023). https://nacdd.org/ddam1/
National Today (2023). History of autism acceptance month. https://nationaltoday.com/autism-awareness-month/
Pinals, D., Hoermale, L., Mauch, D., & Anacker, L. (2022). Persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the mental health system: part 1. Clinical considerations. Psychiatric Services, 73(3). Doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.201900504
Zablotsky, B., Black, L., Maenner, M., Schieve, L., Danielson, M., Bitsko, R., Blumberg, S., Kogan, M., & Boyle, C. (2019). Prevalence and trends of developmental disabilities among children in the US: 2009–2017. Pediatrics, 144(4):e20190811
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