Advocates aim to raise awareness for individuals with autism

ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) -- Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam recently removed the age limit on healthcare for people with autism, putting a new spotlight on the disorder as Autism Awareness Month begins.

One in 59 children are diagnosed with autism every year. And while it's typically associated with children, it's not a disorder that goes away at adulthood.

Dr. Angela Scarpa-Friedman works at the Virginia Tech Autism Clinic in Blacksburg. Helping her there and with the Mobile Autism Clinic, Jordan Albright and Ashley Muskett are grad students with a passion for helping people.

"I really love working with kids with autism. I think they're really cool kids," Muskett said.

"I think that as important as it is to provide individuals with autism with social skills and that sort of thing, it's also really important to spread awareness and understanding of what this diagnosis can look like," Albright added.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is not easy to define.

"It is a spectrum, meaning that its presentation can vary widely from child to child," Dr. Scarpa explained. "I often talk about autism as being like water that can have many different presentations."

From communication to social interaction to repetitive behaviors, autism looks different in every individual.

"I think the biggest misconception is that we think of autism in one way and that all people who have this label of 'autism' are going to look a certain way or act a certain way," Dr. Scarpa said.

She said the differences between individuals with autism make them as unique as you and me.

"I would love to live in a world where we accepted everyone for who they are and for all their individual abilities, no matter where they are on that spectrum," she said. "The world would be a better place, for risk of sounding cliche."

"I'm just a big advocate for encouraging people to be around people with autism because I think if you're not, you're really missing out on getting to know a lot of great people," Muskett said.

Another local advocate for change is Amy Trail, the founder of FACES, an autism educational advocacy service, and the mom of a son with autism.

Like most 14-year-old boys, her son Noah likes to eat popcorn, has a lot of energy, and gets embarrassed when his mom comes to visit at school. He's also like the 3.5 million Americans who live with ASD.

"At 18 months, he regressed. Typical development until that point," Trail explained. "I knew immediately that something was wrong."
At 21 months, he was diagnosed with regressive autism. He's non-verbal and has severe epilepsy.

"His ability to socialize is quite impaired," Trail said. "He doesn't mind being around other people, but actual social interaction with others, he's very limited."

Since he was three years old, he's been going to the Blue Ridge Autism Center in Roanoke. For his mother, the change from not interacting with anyone at all to now is night and day.

"He can sit and do work. He's reading small books. He plays with his friends. He does all kinds of little jobs around here."

Over the years, Trail has become an advocate not just for her son but also for others with autism.

"I can represent 100 kids with autism and not one of their IEPs [Individualized Education Programs] will be the same as the next one."

She strives to make sure each person gets the individualized care and education they need to live healthy, productive lives.

"We want the same kind of things for our children that everybody wants, just some happiness and to live on his own the best way he can," she said.

When asked how people can do better at understanding and including individuals with autism, Trail said ask questions. She said she loves to talk about her son and encourages people to ask about his differences.

Amy Trail will be at the Light It Up Blue event at Elmwood Park Tuesday, April 2, from 6-8 p.m. She will be sharing information about her organization, FACES. There will be games, giveaways, face painting, and cookie decorating. Everyone is welcome!

There are other events happening this month to support autism awareness.

The Virginia Tech Center for Autism Research is hosting its annual Outreach Conference on April 26 from 8 a.m.- 5 p.m.

April 13 is Autism Awareness Night with the Salem Red Sox.

Click here for more events in the area.