Autism advocates ask for acceptance, not just awareness

‘The acceptance part of it means that you’re taking action’

April is Autism Awareness Month.

ROANOKE, Va. – April marks National Autism Awareness Month.

At the Blue Ridge Autism and Achievement Center in Roanoke, it’s a time to celebrate the differences and strengths of people on the spectrum.

“Autism Awareness Month is really more about acceptance,” said Bethany Mazurek, the center’s special education director.

She said acceptance means understanding the value people living with autism bring to the community.

“These people are part of our community and that these individuals have something to offer,” said Mazurek. “They’re amazing.”

The school serves students ages 2 to 22, but then the “autism cliff” sets in.

“They graduate from school, but then they’re kind of a little lost. And there isn’t a whole lot for adults out there. And so our mission is to make sure that there are services beyond the age of 22,” said Mazurek.

She is asking employers to keep an open mind.

“They can work and they can contribute just like you or I can,” said Mazurek.

Samantha Zaldivar, the center’s clinical director, said the pandemic took a toll on all students’ learning and mental health, but was particularly detrimental for those on the spectrum since they already struggle with social interactions and rely on routines.

“I think we’re all trying to re-learn a new world,” said Zaldivar.

She said research and fundraising are other important pieces of the puzzle. About 85 percent of families at BRAAC are financially covered by their school districts or insurance, but for the 15 percent who aren’t, one year at the center can cost the same as college tuition.

“We’re a nonprofit,” said Zaldivar. “There’s so many organizations coming to our community that can benefit from volunteers, that can benefit from donations.”

For these women, autism awareness means autism acceptance.

“The acceptance part of it means that you’re taking action,” said Mazurek.

They also said that staffing challenges are impacting services. The waitlist at BRAAC is about 70 students; however, there aren’t enough teachers or staff to be able to admit more.

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You can watch Lindsey during Virginia Today every weekend or as a reporter during the week!