Berkshire County raises autism awareness: From art shows to legislation

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Next month,dozens of local service providers, schools and other individuals and organizations in the Berkshires will band together to celebrate April as international Autism Awareness Month. Here are eight things to know about autism spectrum disorders and awareness campaigns:

1. The National Autism Associated defines autism as "a bio-neurological developmental disability that generally appears before the age of 3." It's a complex disability that has a range of effects on people, hence the "spectrum" reference. Autism can affect the way people process information which can present social, communication and behavioral challenges, which can be compounded by other physical or developmental disabilities.

2. There is no medical test, like a blood or saliva test, that can be used to diagnose autism. Instead, doctors use a series of behavioral, sensory and cognitive tests to conclude whether a person is affected by autism.

3. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 1 in 68 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder in the United States.

4. Just like there is no one sure way to diagnose autism or predict who will be born with it, there is no one treatment or cure. Early identification and interventions are helpful though in improving outcomes and quality of life for people with autism.

5. While symbols like the puzzle piece, the puzzle piece ribbon, the color blue and a variety of social media hashtags are popularly used in autism awareness campaigns, not everyone relates to them, and that's OK.

6. In Berkshire County, many agencies do participate in the "Go Blue," campaign for autism awareness, which locally includes a series of displays, events, activities, educational workshops and public rallies. This year's participating campaign partners include member agencies of the Autism Collaborative of Berkshire County: AdLib, Autism Connections, Berkshire County Arc, Berkshire Family and Individual Resources (BFAIR), College Internship Program (CIP), Hillcrest Educational Foundation, and United Cerebral Palsy (UCP) of Berkshire County. Additional campaign supporters include the city of Pittsfield and Downtown Pittsfield Inc., Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and the city of North Adams. According to campaign organizers, community members are encouraged to wear blue each Friday of the month in solidarity.

7. On March 7, statewide advocacy agencies lobbied at the State House for legislators to invest $70 million in the state budget for caregiving and support services for families affected by developmental disabilities, like autism. The Arc of Massachusetts and Massachusetts Developmental Disabilities Council held its 40th annual Legislative Reception on this date with the theme of "Honoring 40 Years of Success:

Facing an Uncertain Future," indicating that while progress has been made, there's a long way to go to support people with these disabilities from birth to end-of-life care. Berkshire County agencies also recently held a breakfast with local delegates to raise awareness and ask for more resources for this community.

8. There are more than a dozen pieces of legislation currently proposed to the Massachusetts Legislature relative to autism, from a bill to support medical teams trained to address conditions related to autism to legislation to provide equal access to medical treatments essential for people with autism to proposals for creating specialized higher education opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities, autism and other developmental disabilities.

There is much more known about autism and autism spectrum disorders today than ever, but there is also a lot that's not known or that is misunderstood. It's worth remembering is that every person affected by autism sees and feels it differently, whether they're someone with a diagnosis or a family member or friend of someone who's affected by it. The best thing to do if you want to know more about autism is to ask the people affected by it, to hear from their family members and friends, and to find out about the work being done by schools, medical practices and other agencies to help people to access the education, care and resources they need to live a good life.

Autism awareness events and activities

Members of the Autism Collaborative of Berkshire County are promoting an online calendar of special events for those with autism and their caretakers which can be found at: http://bit.ly/AutismCollaborative

CIP's Good Purpose Gallery, 40 Main St., Lee, during the first week of April, will feature an exhibition from Community Access to the Arts (CATA), which showcases artwork by people with disabilities and a range of neurodiversity. The second week, the Gallery will celebrate the artwork by high school students across the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts and photographs by Michael McManmon, Ed.D., CIP's founder and artist who has Asperger's syndrome. Student artwork from CIP Centers across the country will also be featured during the month of April. Info: goodpurpose.org

On Wednesday, April 4, at 7 p.m. The Spectrum Playhouse (formerly St. George's Episcopal Church) at 20 Franklin St. in Lee, will feature two one-act plays performed by Students at CIP Berkshire. Both shows will follow the topic of young adult's experiences with autism spectrum disorders as part of Autism Awareness Month and the "Light it up Blue" campaign. The plays include "The Other Room" by Ariadne Blayde and "Our Own Normal," a series of scenes, monologues and songs about autism and other learning differences, as told through the voices of Students at CIP Berkshire. This production is recommended for ages 11 and up. Performances are free and open to the public. Info: 413-394-5023 or spectrumplayhouse.org

A Positive Behavior Supports for Families training for parents and caregivers of people with autism will be held from 5:30-7 p.m., on Thursday, April 5, at Berkshire County Arc, 2 South St., Pittsfield. To register: https://conta.cc/2pE8f8H

A campaign kick-off Autism Celebration Event and Art Show will take place from 5-7 p.m. on Friday, April 6, at AdLib, 215 North St., Pittsfield. This free, public event is held in tandem with First Fridays Artswalk, and will feature artwork from local residents with autism and special performances by students from the College Internship Program. Information about services available to individuals with autism and their families/caretakers will also be available.

A closing campaign rally will be held on Friday, April 27, from 5-7 p.m. in Pittsfield's Park Square. All are welcome.


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