April is Autism Acceptance Month and to learn more about autism, I had coffee with Sharyn Morrow, Senior Accessibility Analyst at Siteimprove, who had recently published a post on LinkedIn about being a parent of a child with autism. As we talked, Sharyn shared their story about their life as a parent with me but before getting into that, let us gain an understanding of what living with autism means.

What is Autism?

Autism is a complex developmental diagnosis that refers to a broad range of conditions typically characterized by challenges with social behaviors and communication challenges.

What are the causes of Autism?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Mayo Clinic, autism has no single known cause. Research suggests that autism develops from a combination of genetic, nongenetic, or environmental influences. It does state that symptoms begin in early childhood but can go unrecognized until adulthood.

What is the spectrum?

The term ‘spectrum’ refers to the wide range of symptoms and severity of those symptoms a person experiences. Each person has a distinct set of strengths and challenges. An autistic person will likely have a unique pattern of behavior and level of challenges they face.

Now that we have a better awareness of what Autism is, let’s bring some context around it in an everyday life situation.

Sharyn's story

Sharyn, can you please share your story?

Sharyn: “I grew up in a neurodiverse family, myself included. My son is a young adult now but when he was a toddler, I recognized some behaviors. For example, he didn’t seem to interact with other kids very much. Instead, he liked to sit near them and engage in parallel play. Happily doing his own thing. I took him to our local school district for screening and he was enrolled in an early childhood special education program. The early years were a little challenging, mostly when we were at playgrounds. Other kids could tell there was something different about him and were occasionally cruel. And some adults too. Especially those who wanted to focus on all the negatives and challenges more than my son’s goals. But, for the most part, the educators and specialists who worked with my son made a huge difference in his life. They helped identify areas where he needed more support so that he could achieve more. My son started speaking late, but he’s certainly caught up now. By junior high, he joined mainstream classrooms, with some assistance. And by high school? He was running the place! He volunteered with a group of students who made daily announcements. He would interview classmates on camera, in the hallways, man-on-the-street style. And he was voted Homecoming king his senior year. I was told he won by a landslide. But he wound up with two Queens, as there was a tie.

After high school, he took part in a transition program that supported him while he got the hang of taking college classes. He planned to participate in additional employment programs as well, but the pandemic got in the way. In general, Minnesota does have better programs to support autistic people than many other states.

I am so proud of who Parker has become and all that he has achieved. I gush about him all the time. He is just a kind person who lights up a room. It has been such an amazing experience as a parent to watch him achieve all the goals he has set forth. I look forward to the next chapter of his life being a young adult. First, this kid needs a job.”

young man with green hair giving a thumbs up while wearing a homecoming court sash.

Sharyn's son Parker wearing his homecoming court sash.

How is living with autism and the viewpoint of that changing?

Sharyn: “For many years, autism was viewed as a deficit rather than a difference. A lot of media attention centered on parents and the difficulties they faced rather than the autistic people themselves. That attitude was still prevalent when my son was younger, but the conversation has shifted significantly. The idea of neurodiversity has become more accepted. This is the viewpoint that brain differences are normal. That conditions like autism and ADHD aren’t abnormal but are just variations of the human brain. People are naturally diverse learners. Acknowledging this can help reduce stigma and foster acceptance of others who have learning and thinking differences. Autistic people are advocating for themselves more and getting the message out that autism is a part of their identity and they don’t want or need to be “fixed.” We’ve come a long way but there is still work to do to foster greater understanding and to ensure that autistic people have access to education, healthcare, and employment opportunities.

In our home, we don’t focus on the challenges we face but we emphasize our goals and celebrate them. Even though April is World Autism Month, every day is Autism Acceptance day for our family.”

 

Employee photo of SharynSharyn Morrow, who is currently working as Senior Accessibility Analyst, has been with Siteimprove since 2015. Sharyn is based in Minneapolis.