News Article Details

Mayor signs autism proclamation as advocates seek awareness

McAlester News-Capital - 4/2/2017

April 02--It may seem like a small step, but the parents of children with autism spectrum disorder are hopeful it will help raise awareness in the community about the challenges faced by children with the condition, as well as their families.

McAlester attorney Brecken Wagner and his son, Bryce Wagner, joined McAlester City Attorney Joe Ervin and his son, Jack Ervin, at City Hall on Tuesday night as McAlester Mayor John Browne signed a proclamation declaring April 1-8 as Autism Awareness Week in McAlester.

Brecken Wagner is one of those who is hoping for more awareness about autism.

Wagner said there are very few services for children and others with autism in southeastern Oklahoma, including McAlester.

"Our state is woefully behind and our community is as well," Wagner said.

He said change will come only through awareness and that even a gesture such as the signing of the mayor's proclamation can have a huge impact.

At McAlester Public Schools, Special Services Director Kim Baxter said about 1 percent of the total student population utilizes services related to autism spectrum disorder. The Mayo Clinic defines autism spectrum disorder as a serious neurological developmental disorder that impairs a child's ability to communicate with and interact with others.

Baxter said every situation can be different with the approximately 37 students who receive autism spectrum disorder specialized services at MPS. Some students have autism-related conditions, but do not require specialized services, she said.

"Some aren't diagnosed and some do not need school services," she said.

Services are available for those who need them, said Baxter.

"We serve students from 3-years-old to 21," Baxter said. Classes vary. Some classes are self-contained while other students attend regular classes.

"It's very individual-based," Baxter said. Many autistic students "are more than capable of going to class, graduating and going to college," she said.

Over about the past 10 years, MPS has seen an almost 100-percent increase in the number of students diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

Baxter said she's not aware of any research to show why the numbers have increased.

"We are getting better at diagnosing," she said. Baxter also spoke of a college professor who has autism and who has had a remarkable impact upon the field of agriculture.

Baxter agrees that community awareness is important.

"There are some children who need some help understanding the world around them," she said. "They need some help navigating.

"They are more than capable of being part of our community," Baxter said. "They need a little bit of help."

Asked how a school determines if a child is autistic, Baxter said often a child has already been diagnosed by a pediatrician by the time the child gets to school. She encouraged parents who are concerned as to whether their child has autism spectrum disorder to see a medical professional. If a child does have autism, the diagnosis can be important as to what steps the school should take.

The proclamation signed by Mayor Browne notes that he declared April 1-8 as Autism Week in McAlester because:

--Autism is the fastest growing developmental disability in the United States, affecting more that three million people;

--Autism is a neurological disorder that interferes with the normal function of the human brain and can affect anyone, regardless of ethnicity, gender or socioeconomic background;

--Symptoms and characteristics of autism may present themselves in a variety of combinations and can result in significant lifelong impairment of an individual's ability to learn, develop healthy interactive behaviors and understand verbal as well as nonverbal communication;

--Doctors, therapists and educators can help people with autism overcome challenges and provide early, accurate diagnosis;

--It is fitting and proper to ensure that individuals living with autism have access to lifelong care and services needed to achieve their greatest potential;

--Families and caretakers of children and adults with autism are in vital need of their community's support.

That's why Wagner is hopeful an act as simple as signing a mayoral proclamation can help make a difference.

"It's events like this" that can make awareness happen, he said.

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com.

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(c)2017 the McAlester News-Capital (McAlester, Okla.)

Visit the McAlester News-Capital (McAlester, Okla.) at mcalesternews.com

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