‘We need to do better’: AU experts speak out during Autism Awareness Month

Autism Walk-A-Thon 2023 spreads awareness in Augusta
Published: Apr. 14, 2023 at 10:12 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - April is National Autism Awareness Month, local schools, universities, and organizations are spreading awareness to educate people on all things autism.

Augusta University experts talked with us to tell us about autism and what people might not know about it.

One Augusta University autism expert, Dr. Teal Benedvides, says, “Autism is considered a developmental disability by the medical and service sector. The ‘developmental’ part means that people are born with autism, and usually demonstrate signs of autism in childhood.”

Autism prevalence has increased since 2000. Currently, autism is identified in about 1 in 36 children.

Although children are more commonly identified because extensive screening and identification processes are in place for medical and educational settings, autistic people are also diagnosed in adulthood.

Benevides says, “Neurodiverse individuals, including people on the autism spectrum, experience stigma and discrimination in schools, medical settings, workplaces, and in families.”

The use of medical criteria including terms related to “symptoms” or “signs” is often used to justify services and support, and is needed when seeking insurance coverage for autism and related services.

“Although autism has a number of characteristics that are used for diagnosis which are framed from a negative perspective, we need to do better and recognize the many strengths and abilities of people on the spectrum,” Benevides says.

Dr. Stephen Shore, an autistic educator, and advocate, says, “If you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism.”

“It is important to not make assumptions about autistic people and to get to know each person’s strengths, unique gifts, supporting preferred ways of communication and social interaction, and promoting self-determination is important for all people, ” Benevides says.

She explains that autism is also an identity, and many autistic people also identify as neurodiverse. This positive framing of autism as an identity, part of what makes oneself unique, is an important distinction.

“Our human diversity makes our world a better place. Promote your loved one’s strengths and goals, and help them find the things they love and want to do,” Benevides says.

Augusta University now has a Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics team, led by Dr. Jennifer Poon. Poon and her colleagues provide evaluations, and services, and make referrals to other specialists.

For people outside of Augusta University, adults on the spectrum who require more intensive home and community-based support may be eligible for a 1915c Medicaid waiver. In Georgia, there are two waivers for adults, depending on the person’s needs: the NOW Waiver and the COMP Waiver.

Some children under the age of 21 are eligible for a Medicaid waiver, called the Katie Beckett waiver.

Local Support

April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day, several local schools, and groups held events and participated in bringing awareness to autism.

At Diamond Lakes Elementary School, the mime team performed in honor of the day. Throughout the month of April, there will be more events and performances held in honor of Autism Awareness.

The National Youth Advocate Program Georgia, located in Augusta, held a virtual public education event, focusing on the contribution of autistic people at home, at work, in the arts, and in policymaking.

The program states, “In recent years, major progress has been made in increasing awareness and acceptance of autism, not least thanks to the many amazing autistic advocates who have worked tirelessly to bring the lived experience of autistic people to the wider world.”

On April 5, 12-year-old Carter Bonas of Spectrum Golf came to Augusta to see The Masters. He was awarded tickets to The Masters by UPS after they named him a spokesperson for their Be Unstoppable Campaign. Carter who is high on the autism spectrum, started his line of golf apparel, over fears he wouldn’t be hired if his parents died during the pandemic.

MOM, Moving Over Mountains Against Autism, an Augusta foundation, hosted the first annual Autism Awareness Walk-a-thon on April 1. Deidre Roberson, the Founder, and CEO of MOM, started this in honor of her autistic son.

MOM has also received a proclamation from the Mayor of Augusta, Garrett Johnson.

At Aiken Public Safety, we have officers that work with the Project Lifesaver program. Those officers receive a great deal of training to be certified to work in the program. Project Lifesaver provides timely responses to save lives and reduce potential injury for adults and children who wander due to autism, Alzheimer’s, and other related conditions or disorders.

Citizens enrolled in Project Lifesaver wear a small personal transmitter around the wrist or ankle that emits an individualized tracking signal. If an enrolled client goes missing, the caregiver notifies Public Safety, and a trained emergency team responds to the wanderer’s area. Most who wander are found within a few miles from home, and search times have been reduced from hours and days to minutes.

Many sheriff’s offices are recognizing Autism Awareness Month by wearing blue badges with the puzzle symbol. Wrens and Washington County Sheriff’s Office both are recognizing the month.

Upcoming awareness events

The Annual Autism Awareness Breakfast returns and will be hosted by MOM, Moving Over Mountains Against Autism. The Autism Breakfast first began in 2013 and was created by Deidre Roberson, the Founder, and CEO of MOM.

During the breakfast, there will be three speakers. Dr. Onnie Poe with Filling in the GAPS, Pamela Key-Roberson a Retired Special Education Teacher, and Dr. Quenshauna Motley, Special Support Services Coordinator.

  • April 29 - from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Join BlueSprig Augusta for their spring carnival open house. The event is open to current clients and families, local community partners, and anyone who wants to participate in the fun. There will have games, goodie bags, sensory-friendly activities for kids, and much more. The event will allow everyone to meet others in the community and ask any questions they may have.

  • May 17 - from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

In celebration of Autism Awareness Month, all Chuck E. Cheese locations nationwide that are open for games will open two hours early for Sensory Sensitive Sunday. Starting in April, Augusta’s Chuck E. Cheese will open two hours early on the first Sunday of the month to offer a sensitive-friendly experience for the remainder of the year.

The Sunday events will have reduced lighting and noise, food and games, and trained staff.

In April, a portion of proceeds from cotton candy sales up to $50,000, will go to Autism Speaks. Guests in-store and online can round up their purchases at checkout. Also, 10% of profits from all sales from the Chuck E. Online Shop in April will be donated to Autism Speaks.

  • April 30 - starting at 9 a.m.
  • May 7 - starting at 9 a.m.

To learn more about autism

Local autism testing, services

  • Augusta Developmental Specialists
  • Child NeuroBehavioral Center for Health and Wellness
  • Evans Psychology Group
  • Families Forward
  • Pediatric Autism Clinical and Evaluation Services