At The Edinburg Center, there is a strong and pervasive belief that all humans have a place in this world. That includes, if not emphasizes, individuals with disabilities. However, people living with a variety of developmental or intellectual disorders, including autism, are not always fully integrated into their communities due to lack of understanding, misinformation and assumption.
While April is Autism Awareness Month, The Edinburg Center serves, supports and shares the stories of people with autism all year long. Located in Bedford, Massachusetts, the organization offers a wide variety of services, including Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) programs, residential housing, children’s services, mental health and more, with clients age ranging from three to 87.
The Edinburg Center began offering autism services in 2015 after the state passed a law granting anyone with Massachusetts state health insurance access to ABA services. Brought on board to create and grow Edinburg Center’s ABA program was Carol Gillis, BCBA, LABA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst & Licensed Behavior Analyst) who continues to serve as The Center’s Director of Autism Services. With over 28 years of experience, Ms. Gillis has spearheaded the growth of the ABA autism program, which now offers in-home and community-based services to both children and adults in their community.
“My goal within the program is to assess who the individual wants to be, and then put programming in place for them to get there,” Gillis said. “We want to make sure they are a part of their community, whether that be having a job, independent living, volunteering – whatever that might look like for them.”
Autism is a spectrum disorder that refers to a wide range of conditions indicated by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. While providers such as Edinburg act as a safe space and offer strong support to individuals with autism and their families, acceptance and understanding isn’t always prevalent in everyday life. This was especially true before initiatives such as awareness month and autism professional organizations helped spread understanding and debunk stigmas surrounding the autism community. However, there is often a misconception today about people with autism – that they cannot socialize, are unable to learn or don’t liked to be touched. In reality, a lot of those ideas are harmful misconceptions.
“People with autism want to succeed. They want to communicate, contribute and be a member of their communities; sometimes they just don’t know how,” Gillis said. “Like with all things in life, everyone reacts to situations differently. It’s important to not assume people want the same things or level of interaction you want.”
A major aspect of community involvement is employment, which can also be a challenge for adults with autism, often because they don’t have the support in place to succeed at their jobs. Individuals with autism typically have different experiences with socialization and sensory processing. This can require different support tactics such as a written script or a go-to fellow employee to help with any questions or guidance.
“They need to be in an environment where they feel safe and successful, just like you and me,” Gillis said. “Their employment opportunities don’t need to look different. The support in place might just look different.”
Gillis and her team work with individuals on a variety of skills and activities of daily living. At Edinburg, there are no limits on what can be taught – language and speech, washing hands, trimming fingernails, learning the color red, working at a bookstore and much more.
“We work on anything and everything,” Gillis said. “When I’m asked if we can work on something, my answer is yes even before they finish their sentence. Behavior is anything a dead man can’t do – so we’re going to do it.”
Whether people know it or not, they have likely been touched by an individual with autism. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1 in 68 children are affected by autism. Therefore, as April soon comes to a close, uplifting, supporting and advocating for people with autism must continue. Gillis encourages others to be patient with everyone they meet and always give people the benefit of the doubt. Making assumptions about anyone can be harmful, especially when they are experiencing different challenges than yourself.
Educate yourself and show support through volunteering or learning more through advocacy groups. Let’s continue to raise awareness and promote inclusivity beyond Autism Awareness Month.
“Knowledge is power, and anyone who is willing to learn can and should learn,” Gillis said. “Be part of the solution, not the problem.”
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