Autism Acceptance Month at MPUSD
In the month of April, the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District is recognizing Autism Acceptance Month.
At MPUSD, we serve 1670 special education students. They are supported by 85 teachers, 63 service providers, and 135 classroom support staff dedicated to serving their needs.
“That’s how I was born and everyone is born differently,” said Silas Diaz, a 6th grade student at Crumpton Elementary School.
We want to share information about Autism Acceptance Month with our school district and the rest of the community to encourage a deeper understanding of what it means to be autistic and to support those who live with a disability.
“To make people with autism or any disability fit in, get to understand them first, get to know them better, help them, support them, help them get used to the things that everyone else knows,” said Monterey Adult School student Devyn Addison.
Autism, as defined by the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), is a developmental disability that impacts humans through neurological differences, varying experiences with the senses, movement, communication and social interaction.
Our community may be familiar with the term “autism awareness.” But our special education leaders at MPUSD want to encourage students, parents, teachers and staff to embrace the term “autism acceptance.”
“With awareness, they’re aware of it, they’re knowledgeable about it. Whereas autism acceptance is more action-forward. We’re taking action towards giving autistics the platform, the space and accommodations and modifications needed to learn together with neurotypicals,” said Eiriz Ilagan-Kerol, MPUSD Language Enrichment Academic Performance (LEAP) Program Manager.
Many autistic students participate in MPUSD’s LEAP program. However, some autistic students and their parents or guardians have chosen to participate in our general student population with some services through our special education department and some without additional support.
Alice Oh, Behavior Program Manager for the MPUSD LEAP Program, says her favorite part about working with students is when she sees their growth and potential to learn new skills.
“It almost makes me cry when I hear a student speak for the first time,” Oh said. “Everyone has their own strengths and everything that makes them unique and some people just might need more accommodations and support than others. But everyone has the ability to learn.”
According to NeuroClastic, the term “spectrum” should refer to an autistic person’s varying areas of strength or weaknesses based on the way their brain functions.
To learn more about autism spectrum and the difference between specific disorders versus what meets the true definition of autism, NeuroClastic offers some guidance:
Special education leaders also encourage our community to become familiar with the term “neurodiverse” or “neurodivergent.” According to ASAN, neurodiverse means “no two brains are exactly the same” and neurodivergent refers to a person with a brain-based disability like autism.
“Autistic people experience and interact with the world and the people in it differently than many other people do. The world is kind of created for neurotypical people. So autistic people sometimes need different support to access opportunities and access education in the same way that a neurotypical person would,” said Kim Merryman, Marina High School Speech Language Pathologist.
The neurodiverse movement aims to deter society from thinking autism is something that needs to be fixed or cured. Rather, self-advocates share that autistic people need to have access to the types of accommodations they need to thrive and succeed in life.
“I think that everyone knows that people with autism have disabilities and special needs,” said Ronald Cruz, a 6th grade student at Crumpton Elementary School.
Students receiving support through MPUSD’s special education program are integrated into general education classroom settings throughout their day. This is known as “inclusion.” Occasionally, students face challenges during inclusion and learn about their own abilities along the way.
“The work (is hard) sometimes, but some of it’s really easy,” said Diaz, when he was asked about what’s challenging during inclusion time.
MPUSD works with students and families to tailor the special education experience to meet the needs of each individual. This attention to the overall experience is helping many students grow in their abilities as they get older.
“At school, I always learn and I always work hard,” said Jacob Mendiola, a 4th grade student at Crumpton Elementary School. “I love to play educational games.”
Currently, MPUSD offers special education support for students as young as infants to adults at 22 years old. We have resource specialist teachers at all schools, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, adapted physical education, assistive technology, Deaf and hard of hearing services, Blind or visual impairment services, and self-contained classes with specialized academic instruction.
“People should try to get to know all kinds of students by being patient. Students with autism sometimes need help to stay on task and complete work,” said Connor Whitely, a 7th grade student at Los Arboles Middle School. “Sometimes I have disabilities. Like whenever I watch “Robot Chicken,” I mostly understand the jokes but sometimes I don’t understand jokes.”
Liz Cambra, a speech therapist at Olson Elementary School, says she’s excited about Autism Acceptance Month and hopes all students will benefit from learning about this topic.
“We understand that students are communicating with us in the means that they have right now, whether that’s through gestures or pointing, manual signs like “help,”or high-tech speech generating devices,” Cambra said. “This is neurodiversity. Acknowledging all forms of communication are relevant, important, meaningful and intentional.”
Identity-First vs. Person-First Language
According to ASAN, a discussion was held by autistic self-advocates on the use of identity-first versus person-first language. It was determined by the ASAN Adult Services Subcommittee, that most self-advocates prefer an identity-first reference - “autistic person.” This is contrary to some opinions from those who prefer to use person-first language such as “person with autism.”
Marina High School Senior Marceline Cecilia Milina Williams says she supports identity-first language and appreciates it when people refer to her as an autistic person.
“I personally use “autistic person” because I don’t view myself as a person with autism. It's like saying I’m a person with a computer,” Williams says. “I don’t have an item with me. I am a person who is autistic. I am autistic.”
To read more about this discussion, please reference the information from ASAN on Identity-First Language.
MPUSD’s special education leaders feel more students, teachers, parents and the community need to know this language preference by autistic self-advocates and to share more information about the disability in general.
“What inspired me was hearing the autistic community themself talk about their needs and wanting to be heard more,” said Ilagan-Kerol, when asked about this effort by special education leaders at MPUSD.
Wendy McDonald, a speech language pathologist at Crumpton Elementary School, says recently a student started noticing new signs around campus with a rainbow infinity symbol and the words “Celebrate Neurodiversity.” The student said they liked seeing it.
“I think this is highlighting more of a celebration of being autistic rather than looking at it as a problem and something to fix,” McDonald said.
According to NeuroClastic, recent research shows many autistic people do not support the puzzle piece design often used to refer to autism or autistic people. Instead, autistic people told NeuroClastic they identify positively with infinity symbols and Au, the symbol for gold on the periodic table of elements.
“There has been a lot of online debate about the puzzle piece versus the infinity symbol which I do think the infinity symbol is much better because there’s infinite symptoms and infinite autistic people,” Williams says. “The infinity symbol is just much better in representing kind of like all of us on the spectrum
How You Can Show Support For Autistic Students
MPUSD encourages our community to learn more about special education support and needs. Here are some suggested ways our students, teachers and staff can support and show appreciation for autistic students, based on conversations with MPUSD autistic students:
-Include autistic students in all activities and help them feel welcome
-Be patient when an autistic student possibly needs more time and resources to become successful during their time at school
-Report any bullying at school or outside of school
-Be friendly and get to know autistic students
-Understand that more services may be needed for autistic students
-Provide support if needed to help an autistic student understand how to accomplish a task. But don’t make it too easy for them, so they can also be challenged
-Support use of the infinity or Au symbol on campus