Autism Acceptance Month: Increasing awareness and celebrating differences

April 12, 2021

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In the last 20 years, autism prevalence in the United States has increased from one in 150 children to one in 54. Each April, we recognize National Autism Acceptance Month, which coincides with World Autism Awareness Day on April 2.

What does autism awareness mean? And how does it translate to actionable steps? This year, the #CelebrateDifferences campaign encourages everyone to learn more about autism and be more inclusive in everyday life.

Receiving an autism diagnosis

Amberlee Montarella, MSN, FNP-C, with Adventist Health in Taft and Wasco, has a particular interest in autism. Her two children are both on the autism spectrum. In part, their diagnoses are what drove her into the field of medicine.

“When I first had my daughter, I really didn’t know that anything was going on until her pediatrician recommended she receive an evaluation,” Montarella explains. “I had no idea what to expect. When she was diagnosed, we jumped headfirst into physical therapy and speech therapy without really knowing much about autism.”

When her son was born 18 months later, Montarella noticed more obvious and significant delays. For example, while her daughter would accept soothing during a tantrum, holding her son during a tantrum would make him even more upset. “My son’s diagnosis hit me even harder,” Montarella says. “As a parent, you naturally worry about your child’s future—what will they be able to do? How will they function? Will they be okay?”

Finding the right therapy

Montarella’s children are now both in their early 20s. While both are high-functioning, entering young adulthood has presented a new range of challenges. “When you’re in school, there’s structure and easily accessible resources, such as speech therapy or special education,” Montarella says. “Once you become an adult, all of a sudden there’s a sense of ‘now what?’”

One of the resources that can make a significant difference, Montarella notes, is ABA therapy. ABA stands for Applied Behavioral Analysis and can be geared toward either children or adults. It addresses problem solving, social interactions and offers theoretical scenarios to help people with autism understand how to respond to different problems or situations. “For example, if my son is playing baseball and accidentally gets hit with the ball, his natural inclination is to assume it was intentional,” Montarella explains. “ABA therapy helps address social interactions and provides positive feedback for appropriate responses. In the scenario with my son, therapy can help him identify that getting hit with the ball during a game is an accident.”

Personal experience meets clinical practice

Montarella’s experience as a mother has shaped her interests and approaches in clinical practice. Prior to joining Adventist Health, she worked for several years in a pediatric setting. “Children who have autism easily get overwhelmed with sensory input at the doctor’s office—there are lots of noises, bright lights, unfamiliarity and people touching them. All of these are triggers for many children on the autism spectrum.”

As a provider, Montarella notes that it’s important to be patient, persistent and calm. “If you get anxious or agitated, it escalates the child’s energy. As a mom with two children on the spectrum, I have the luxury of knowing what’s going on. I understand that coming to the doctor can be really overwhelming or scary.”

Montarella adds that one of the most common misconceptions about people with autism is that they are not aware of what’s going on around them. “They may not be able to put their thoughts into words,” she says, “But autistic children are incredibly emotionally tuned in to the people around them.”

Celebrate progress—however it looks

As a parent, Montarella encourages other parents to stand up for their child’s rights at school. “All children are entitled to fair and equal education,” she says. “And it’s important to remember that just because a child learns differently doesn’t mean they’re not learning. They may not learn in the slow progression that you’re used to seeing, but they still learn. Whatever their progress is, celebrate it.”