Connecting the Dots Between Poverty and Autism

April is Autism Acceptance Month—formerly known as Autism Awareness Month. It is a time to “learn more about autism to improve early diagnosis, to learn more about the experiences of autistic people from autistic people, and to build more welcoming and inclusive communities to support people with autism,” said President Biden in a 2021 proclamation.

In the U.S., it is estimated that one in 44 children born each year are diagnosed with autism, the developmental condition that affects a child’s ability to communicate and interact.

While diagnosing autism can be challenging, especially at first, individuals with autism can go on to lead successful, independent, and fulfilling lives. This is even more likely if the diagnosis occurs early enough in childhood so that appropriate interventions can be put in place.

Studies show, however, that children with autism whose families live in low-income neighborhoods, such as the Bronx, where the poverty rate is 26%, are less likely to be diagnosed and receive intervention than children living in more affluent communities.

When children don’t get the help they need when they need it, they may have difficulty developing the communication and other skills needed for everyday life. Adults who never received treatment as children are more likely to have trouble living independently, gaining employment, and managing personal relationships—all of which puts them at risk of homelessness.

From Early Intervention to Ending Homelessness

As part of our vision to end homelessness in the New York area by 2050, VOA-Greater New York is committed to providing for the immediate needs of individuals experiencing, or at risk of, homelessness, but also to prevention and long-term change.

An example of this is our Bronx Early Learning Center (BELC).

The BELC is VOA-Greater New York’s preschool special education program for children between the ages of 2.9 and 5 years with disabilities. It is approved by the New York State Education Department and under contract with the New York City Department of Education to provide evaluation, education and therapeutic services.

Just over 200 students attend the school each year. Many of them have autism, and most of their families live at or below the poverty line.

When a child starts at the BELC presenting with concerns related to development, a team of professionals conducts an evaluation to determine the range of services each child should receive—everything from on-site speech, occupational and physical therapy to counseling. Once a diagnosis is made, children are provided these services at no cost to their families. Bilingual services are available for those students whose primary language is Spanish.

Taking a holistic approach to fighting poverty, VOA-Greater New York also provides families of BELC students support in the form of peer groups, educational workshops, information related to parental rights/advocacy or health concerns, assistance working with specific behavioral challenges, and individual meetings about their child’s progress. Additionally, every student at the school receives a wholesome breakfast, lunch and snack daily through the New York State Education Department breakfast and lunch program. There is also a full-time nurse and two social workers on the premises.

When students are ready to graduate from the BELC, staff work closely with their families and local school districts to find the least-restrictive school-age services for them, setting them up for greater success later in life.

By helping families who would normally not have access to these critical services, VOA-Greater New York is helping prevent individuals from potentially facing life-threatening predicaments— such as homelessness—later in life, which ultimately creates a better future for everyone in the community.

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