The rainbow-colored infinity symbol represents the diversity of the autism spectrum as well as the greater neurodiversity movement.

Unless you are close to someone with autism, you may not realize that April is Autism Awareness Month. It’s a time to put the spotlight on a unique, special and growing population and discuss how we can make every day more about recognizing the value of everyone’s abilities.

As the educational director of BEST Academy in Wallingford, part of the Catapult Learning family of schools, I know how important it is that young people have a supportive environment that embraces them and helps them grow. At our K-12 school, we utilize the BEST (Broad-Based Educational Services & Therapies) Model, providing individualized programs that help our students develop the academic, behavioral and social skills they need to be successful inside and outside the classroom.

While our students might interpret the world differently, their thoughts, fears and hopes are no less important. It’s part of our job to ensure they reach their goals. Our students aged 18 to 21 are about to enter the real world. That can be very scary to the families we serve. To help our students prepare, we encourage participation in our Transition program, which provides the opportunity to gain real jobs skills while working for local businesses and practice interacting with the community at the grocery store, library and local entertainment areas. Within the school, there are also chances to learn by helping serve lunch or performing light administrative and household tasks.

Our goal is always to help our students realize their full potential and become independent, productive adults. It’s so important because the impact is not just on the student but also the parents and family – and ultimately, our neighborhoods as a whole.

It all starts with awareness. It’s true some of our students can exhibit behaviors and reactions that may seem socially inappropriate. For many of them, this is a form of communication, expressing their emotional and physical state or expressing a sensory need, such as over-stimulation. We give our students the time and space to work through situations and give them coping skills to help them increase their ability to self-regulate. But, of course, our students’ lives extend beyond our campus. All of us have probably come into contact with someone with autism at some point. Exposure is the best way to diminish stigma, and we can use these interactions to show our support and be an example to our children and others in treating everyone with respect. Ideally, people will start to see the amazing, unique skills our students possess. They can teach us many things and contribute to our society.

Fostering an inclusive community means recognizing that there are people who are differently abled. Everyone has various gifts and talents, and when we embrace them, we can more easily find ways to use those to build a stronger society in general. Everyone has something to contribute, and we all benefit when everyone has a chance to do just that.

Amy Farmer is the educational director of BEST (Broad-Based Educational Services & Therapies) Academy in Wallingford.

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