On December 13, 2021, OAR celebrated 20 years of service to the autism community. That significant milestone prompted two immediate questions. “Had it really been 20 years?”, and “Can I really be that old?’ Of course, the answer to both is, “Yes.”
I am proud to have been part of OAR’s founding team and continue to be amazed to see what our team of Board leaders, Scientific Council members, friends, supporters, staff and more have accomplished in just two decades. I could take the rest of this letter and more to highlight the accomplishments that mean the most to me, but I won’t. I’d rather talk about where we are today and my vision for OAR in the next ten years.
Let’s start with discussing two common terms “autism community” and “neurodiversity”. As often as they are they are used and are in some ways interdependent, they are rarely used together. I expect that will change significantly in the near term.
Community in this sense includes many stakeholders, principal among the many are parents, families, educators, autism professionals, and, most significantly, autistic individuals themselves.
Neurodiversity refers to the wide range of neurological functioning and the complex assortment of behavior, skills, talents, and interpersonal relationships characteristic of the entire human population, everyone. While its origins are rooted in the social model of disability, it represents a challenge to reduce stigma, increase true inclusion, and build upon interpersonal respect. The most powerful and often hidden message implied by the term is that neurodiversity is all-inclusive. There may well be neurodivergent and neurotypical subsets, but when combined, they represent all of us. It is the blending, grouping, and interaction of people in daily life and around interests that shape identities and foster communities. Thus, from this neurodiverse whole, we have a collectively neurodiverse, autism community.
By any objective standard, we have come a remarkably, long way in 20 years. We know more about autism and are more responsive to the challenges and needs of both parents and their children. With a prevalence rate now at 1:44 births, autism is very much an everyday reality, and the challenges it presents for children diagnosed and their families remain. So, supporting parents, families, and autistic children in their formative years through research and our ever-expanding array of resources will continue to be central to our mission.
OAR’s challenge, and that of the autism community as a whole I submit, is learning how best to engage and support autistic individuals themselves through their quality-of-life prism not ours. So, we need to engage, listen, and communicate if we are to understand what the important things are in their lives. Then we need to apply the OAR evaluation and creative process to deliver resources that are timely, effective, and supportive of those quality of life factors.
In conclusion, OAR’s work in the decade to come will continue to be based on an evidence-based understanding of autism and the relevant research, paired with evidence drawn from best practices in teaching and supporting autistic children and adults. And our purpose remains to promote lives of personal dignity and quality for autistic individuals and all those who give them love and support. We look forward to the challenge and welcome your input and support.
Peter F. Gerhardt, Ed.D.
Chairman, Scientific Council
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