A majority of hands shot up when students at Westmount elementary were asked Monday if they knew anyone with autism.
That show of awareness — part of autism awareness activities at the school — was indicative of increased diagnosis and awareness of the childhood disorder in the last 20 years.
Autism has become the most prevalent childhood disorder in the world – greater than pediatric AIDS, diabetes and cancer combined. Having once been measured at a rate of one per 10,000 births, autism spectrum disorder now occurs at a frequency of one or two in every 1,000 births. The neurodevelopmental disorder can involved impaired social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication along with restricted and repetitive behaviour.
Each year for the past six, Westmount has held an Autism Acceptance Walk along the Rivers Trail to the Halston rail bridge. Monday’s walk capped a month of learning about the disorder, supported by the Canucks Autism Network (CAN), and an assembly where kids can meet young people with autism.
CAN’s motto is “We CAN Be Friends,” the idea being to promote acceptance of diversity, encouraging kids to do their part to break down social barriers.
“If we see somebody who feels sad and left out, we can certainly embrace them so that everybody feels accepted and not left out,” Jennifer Boyle, learning assistance resource teacher, told the assembly.
Sean Bass was diagnosed at age 2, when a doctor told his parents that he would never be able to talk or go to school. He underwent an intensive language program and achieved both goals.
“It wasn’t easy to learn,” said Bass, who has graduated from TRU and works at a restaurant. “I think autism is just another way of being an individual,” he said, concluding a prepared speech before the assembly.
Nan Stevens and her son Westin Newcomen, who has non-verbal autism, made their third visit to Westmount’s acceptance walk. Westin finished up at Chris Rose Autism Centre at age 12 and now attends Beattie School of the Arts. He also skis with the Canadian Association of Disabled Skiers.
“It’s getting easier and easier for Westin to come here,” Nan said.
As though wanting to demonstrate that ease, the boy moved without reluctance through the crowd of students, giving his special three-part handshake.