Autism to be discussed at Girl Developers' Summit

YPSILANTI – Children living with autism need the same opportunities as their typically developing peers.

This is especially true for girls who are diagnosed with autism, according to Amy Sanderson, who will be a panelist at this year’s Girl Developers’ Summit on February 23 at Eastern Michigan University. The Summit is sponsored by Girl Scouts Heart of Michigan.

Sanderson, associate director of Family and Community Services at the Autism Collaborative Center at EMU, and her fellow panel members will discuss the effects of autism on girls and how they may be successfully integrated into group activities such as Girl Scout troops.

“For girls there’s a lot more social peer pressure, especially when they reach middle school,” Sanderson said. “Conformity becomes important. “It’s really important that girls with autism have the opportunity to interact with their peers so they can learn how to act and talk.”

However, this does not come without its share of challenges.

“Community organizations and agencies would like to and intend to be inclusive and the (Americans with Disabilities Act) requires that as well but in reality and practice this can be very challenging,” Sanderson said. “A child living with autism may be of average or high intelligence, but unable to control their behavior and may have challenges participating in a craft project or know how to take turns in a group setting.”

Autism is a behavior disorder and those affected by it require consistency and very concrete supports such as timers or calendars which they are able to refer back to.Oftentimes this requires the presence of a family member or caregiver at the outset of any group involvement to help the autistic child negotiate new surroundings and unfamiliar relationships, Sanderson said.

It is a delicate balancing act which involves educating the typically developing peers that they should not be afraid of what “little Suzy” can’t do and what upsets her, Sanderson said, adding that each child diagnosed with autism exhibits different behaviors which require different methods of treatment and interaction.

“Sometimes they only want to talk about one specific thing all of the time,” Sanderson said. “There’s a huge range and spectrum and it’s very broad in terms of what autism looks like in any one girl.

“A young girl who’s not potty trained can’t just go on an overnight trip with a Girl Scout troop. It’s tough because it’s volunteer-driven. On paper people may be ready for it, but you really have to meet each individual kid.”

Providing individuals with a better working knowledge of autism was the driving force behind the decision to have Sanderson and her colleagues speak at the Summit, said Mariela Rua, Adult Recruitment and Education Specialist with GSHOM and Summit coordinator.

“We are an inclusive organization that welcomes all girls,” Rua said. “We want to include girls living with autism in our activities as much as possible. It is my hope that this will give all Summit attendees, especially our adult volunteers, ideas on how to successfully integrate these girls into groups with typically developing peers.”

Sanderson said the earlier this happens, the greater are the chances that critical social communication skills will develop.

For more information about the Summit or to register, please visit the Girl Scouts Heart of Michigan website at gshom.org.