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As autism diagnoses increase, Tucson community pushes for more acceptance

'All in for Autism' campaign begins in Southern AZ
Autism has become more common in recent years among children in Arizona.
Posted at 6:11 AM, Mar 31, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-01 11:52:01-04

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — Autism affects everyone differently, but it is affecting more people every year in Arizona.

Data from the Arizona Developmental Disabilities Surveillance Program shows among 8-year-olds in Arizona, about 1 in 40 had autism in a 2021 report. That figure was 1 in 63 in a 2020 report.

Maxine Mathews—information & referral specialist and development coordinator with the Autism Society of Southern Arizona —has two sons with autism. Each behaves very differently and has their own strengths and struggles.

“Everyone is different and everyone deserves happiness, everyone deserves to excel, everyone deserves to be successful,” she said. “Autistic people, they deserve that, too. They are equal and whole beings that get to have what everyone else has. And that’s very important.

“And we’re not there yet. We’re nowhere near there,” Mathews said.

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Mathews says one of the reasons why is that people who don’t have a close friend or family member with autism often don’t feel the need to learn more about it or find ways to be accommodating or accepting of those who do.

“I think it’s one of those like, 'That’s not me. That’s not my life. I don’t understand it. It’s something different,” Mathews said. “It could be you. It could be your brother. It could be your son. It could be your nephew. It could be your best friend’s kid. It could be anyone.”

April is Autism Acceptance Month. That is one of the driving forces behind the Autism Society of Southern Arizona's “All in for Autism” campaign.

Businesses and organizations across the area are committing to making the community more inclusive for those with autism.

The Tucson Roadrunners are one example: the hockey team will host an Autism Acceptance Night on Saturday, April 2, including a sensory room, earplug distribution and a quieter gamely atmosphere in order to be less overwhelming for those with autism.

“I think just the spaces that you naturally go, would that be accommodating for someone with autism? Is it too loud?” said Autism Society of Southern Arizona executive director Brie Seward. “Be more inclusive within society and you’re creating spaces that are equitable and friendlier for those that maybe feel more isolated.”

The Autism Society's Autism Friendly Communities Program focuses on outreach to schools, libraries and others—even, according to Seward, the Willcox Police Department. That outreach helps educate people how to build a more inclusive environment for people with autism.

“As a teacher, what can I do to maybe make more visual schedules or offer more support?” said Seward. “Am I explaining, as a coach, step-by-step instructions rather than just assuming that everyone knows what to do?”

But aside from those institutions, Seward says autism becoming more prevalent makes it even more relevant for everyone to understand their neighbors, co-workers and loved ones with the developmental disorder.

“I see that as becoming such a part of our society and it’s our job to equip and inform, and also as an individual to be more aware and increase your own understanding of autism,” she said.

Mathews says she has seen progress in recent years.

“I would like to see people come to us and be like, ‘We really have this blind spot about autism.’ And they have, slowly,” she said. ”So when someone says like, ‘Oh, I never thought of it that way,’ that is a little victory.”

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Ryan Fish is an anchor and reporter for KGUN 9 and comes to the Sonoran Desert from California’s Central Coast after working as a reporter, sports anchor and weather forecaster in Santa Barbara. Ryan grew up in the Chicago suburbs, frequently visiting family in Tucson. Share your story ideas and important issues with Ryan by emailing ryan.fish@kgun9.com or by connecting on Facebook and Twitter.