National Autism Awareness Month

The first National Autism Awareness Month was declared by the Autism Society in April 1970.

The aim of this month is educate the public about autism. Autism is a complex mental condition and developmental disability, characterized by difficulties in the way a person communicates and interacts with other people. Autism can be be present from birth or form during early childhood (typically within the first three years). Autism is a lifelong developmental disability with no single known cause.

People with autism are classed as having Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and the terms autism and ASD are often used interchangeably. A wide spectrum disorder, people will autism have set of symptoms unique to themselves; no two people are the same.

Increasing Awareness About The Common Characteristics Of Autism

Whilst no two people with autism will have the same set of symptoms, there are common characteristics found in those with this complex disability. Briefly, these characteristics include:

Social Skills: people with autism have problems interacting with others; autistic children do not have adequate playing and talking skills. Mild symptoms on one end of the spectrum may be displayed through clumsy behavior, being out of sync with those around them and inappropriate or offensive comments being made. At the other end of the spectrum an autistic person may not be interested in others.

Empathy:  empathy is the ability to recognize and understand the feelings of another person. People with autism find it harder to show empathy to others although they can be taught to acknowledge the others feelings.

Physical Contact in some cases: autistic people do not like physical contact such as hugs, tickling or physical play with others.

Sudden Changes To Their Environment: a sudden change in the surrounding environment may affect a person with autism. This could be a loud noise, a change in intensity of lighting or even a change in smell.

Speech: speech can be affected in people with autism. ‘Echolalia’ is a typical speech symptom in which the person repeats words and phrases that they hear. The speech tone of an autistic person may be monotonous. Where symptoms are more extreme the person may not speak.

Changes To Behavior and Routine: people with autism often display repetitive behavior in which they repeat the same action many times over. For example, a person with autism may repeatedly pace around a room in a certain direction. Any change to their behavior or routine can be unsettling for them. This could be a reordering of daily activities such as when a person brushes their teeth, takes a shower and has breakfast when they get up in the morning.

Other characteristics of autism include an unpredictable learning rate, obsessions and physical tics.

Autism Is Widespread, Awareness About This Condition Is Not

In the United States, autism affects 1 in every 110 children. National Autism Awareness Month aims to make the public more aware about this widespread disability and the issues which arise in the autism community. As about 1 in 150 people in America have autism, the chances are that you know someone with this disability. A better informed public will be more empathetic and supportive towards people with autism.

This month is backed by the Autism Society of America which undertake a number of activities to raise awareness about autism. The Autism Society has local chapters throughout the United States which hold special events throughout April.

The ‘Puzzle Ribbon’ is the symbol for Autism Awareness and is promoted by the Autism Society as means of supporting awareness for autism. The Puzzle Ribbon may take the form of a pin attached to clothing, a fridge magnet or a sticker and are available to purchase from the Autism Society website.

The Autism Society of America also run a year long campaign through their 1 Power 4 Autism initiative, in which people are encouraged to hold events to raise awareness and support for those affected by autism.

Different but not Less

“There is no greater disability in society, than the inability to see a person as more,” said Robert Hensel. Having a disability does not limit the potential of an individual. Rather than focusing on what they cannot do, focus on the things they can do and you will be surprised. There are things that people with disabilities might do differently, but that does not make them less than everyone else. There are seven billion people in the world and not one of them is the same. When I think about my friends with disabilities, I think about how we are more the same than different.

Disability is a matter of perception. There are many different kinds of disabilities including physical, emotional and intellectual disabilities. This only means that the abilities they have are different. My friends with disabilities want many of the same things that I do. No one should be defined by their disability, but instead should be accepted, included, and seen for who they really are.  Everyone deserves to be treated with respect and kindness. My sixth grade teacher always emphasized the importance of people first language and I have made it a habit to always use it. People first language puts the person before their disability. For example, you should say “she has a disability” rather than “the disabled girl.” Using language like “disabled” and “handicapped” is offensive and diminishes someone’s worth.

Spread the word to end the word. Words like the r-word (retarded) are used carelessly and are demeaning to others. Even if it is used with the intention not to hurt anyone, it makes people feel incompetent, dumb, and worthless. But, these individuals are so much more. They are intelligent, unique, and most importantly, they are able. It was so cool that our Bismarck High School (BHS) peer-to-peer class could create a video that made a difference to spread the word to end the word. The video went viral with over 300 shares reaching 57,000 people around the country.

There are many opportunities in our community for you to get to know some of these individuals, some being through the Designer Genes – Down Syndrome Awareness Group and volunteering for the Special Olympics. I volunteer for these organizations as well as spend time with these individuals through my peer-to-peer class at BHS. We hang-out together in school, at lunch and at high school games. It makes me so happy to see them included and enjoying activities that all teens enjoy. Every time I am around my friends, I am amazed at their abilities, their kindness and the joy they bring to my life. Their positivity makes my day! Building a friendship with someone with a disability not only makes an impact in their life, but will make a huge impact in yours as well.

-Sydney Helgeson, Miss Bismarck’s Outstanding Teen 2017

World Down Syndrome Day

By Ellen Stumbo

Every year on 3/21 we celebrate World Down Syndrome Day because there are three copies of the 21st chromosome.

My daughter is 9 years old and Down syndrome is something in her I cherish. I didn’t always feel that way, and I did not always understand why Down syndrome was “celebrated” on a day like today. But now I know.

 While Down syndrome is not what defines who my daughter is, Down syndrome is part of her identity. Every single cell in her body has an extra chromosome, which means Down syndrome cannot be separated from who she is.

 I often hear people use language about “overcoming” Down syndrome or achieving things “in spite of” Down syndrome. I don’t find those messages to be accurate about who my daughter is. She has not overcome Down syndrome because there is nothing to overcome, and she has achieved things not in spite of Down syndrome, but with Down syndrome as an inseparable part of who she is.

 We live in a culture that values intellect over all else, and I’m afraid those ideals are still present, still diminishing those who have intellectual disabilities — as is the case with most people who have Down syndrome. It is hard to imagine that someone would celebrate all aspects of Down syndrome, including an intellectual disability. But I do.

 “For you created my inmost being, you knit me together in my mother’s womb, I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” Psalm 139: 14


My daughter is perfect, exactly the way she is. She is fearfully and wonderfully made. Her intellect, her charm, her personality, the shape of her eyes — every single part of her body — masterfully planned and created by a loving God. This is why I celebrate on World Down Syndrome Day, because God in His wisdom has chosen to make us all diverse — not only in our outward appearance — but in our intellects, in our neurodiversity, in our physical abilities, in the ways we communicate. And I believe life is more beautiful for all of us, when we feel ready to embrace and celebrate all our differences.

When Is a Good Time to Start Receiving Social Security Benefits?

Enjoying a comfortable retirement is everyone’s dream. For over 80 years, Social Security has been helping people realize those dreams, assisting people through life’s journey with a variety of benefits. It’s up to you as to when you can start retirement benefits. You could start them a little earlier or wait until your “full retirement age.” There are benefits to either decision, pun intended.

 Full retirement age refers to the age when a person can receive their Social Security benefits without any reduction, even if they are still working part or full time. In other words, you don’t actually need to stop working to get your full benefits.

For people who attain age 62 in 2017 (i.e., those born between January 2, 1955 and January 1, 1956), full retirement age is 66 and two months. Full retirement age was age 65 for many years. However, due to a law passed by Congress in 1983, it has been gradually increasing, beginning with people born in 1938 or later, until it reaches 67 for people born after 1959.

You can learn more about the full retirement age and find out how to look up your own at

You can start receiving Social Security benefits as early as age 62 or any time after that. The longer you wait, the higher your monthly benefit will be, although it stops increasing at age 70. Your monthly benefits will be reduced permanently if you start them any time before your full retirement age. For example, if you start receiving benefits in 2017 at age 62, your monthly benefit amount will be reduced permanently by about 26 percent.

On the other hand, if you wait to start receiving your benefits until after your full retirement age, then your monthly benefit will be higher. The amount of this increase is two-thirds of one percent for each month –– or eight percent for each year –– that you delay receiving them until you reach age 70. The choices you make may affect any benefit your spouse or children can receive on your record, too. If you receive benefits early, it may reduce their potential benefit, as well as yours.

 You need to be as informed as possible when making any decision about receiving Social Security benefits. Read the publication When to Start Receiving Retirement Benefits at

If you decide to receive benefits before you reach full retirement age, you should also understand how continuing to work can affect your benefits. Social Security may withhold or reduce your benefits if your annual earnings exceed a certain amount. However, for every month benefits are withheld, it increases your future benefits. That’s because at your full retirement age Social Security will recalculate your benefit amount to give you credit for the months in which benefits were reduced or withheld due to your excess earnings. In effect, it’s as if you hadn’t filed for those months. You can learn more at

Social Security’s mission is to secure your today and tomorrow. Helping you make the right retirement decisions is vital. You can learn more by visiting our Retirement Planner at


Testifying in Front of the Legislature

Public speaking has never been something I thought I was any good at or looked forward to ever in my life. In fact, it used to terrify me any time I had to get up in front of even one person and utter one sound. My heart pounds, I hear my voice shaking, and I feel like I am about to pass out. Apparently that is just it, all in my head.

As I began speaking out more about disabilities, and especially my own personal ones, I found I was really becoming good at public speaking. The nerves were still there but it made me feel like I was helping others in some small way. And then I was asked to testify in front of some legislators. The nerves really kicked in then. Why they made me feel more nervous I do not know. But I felt it was the right thing to do. Not every one can speak for themselves. I can speak up.

I took a lot of time in writing what I wanted to say to them. I had to keep it short and to the point which can be difficult, but I wanted them to really understand how it is to live with disabilities and what these places like DCIL do for us. The first time I spoke in front of them I could feel all of my anxieties creeping up and it took all of what I have learned to keep going. I was so proud of myself that I did it! I was even more proud that my son was there to see me do it.

So when I was asked to testify again this year I had no hesitation in saying yes. They were going to hear what I had to say. It is empowering when you can have them hear you and you actually feel like they are listening. It may or may not make a difference but at least you tried. It gives me a purpose and I feel like I am doing something positive with my disability.

Mental Health Issues In Special Needs Parents

Studies suggest special needs parents are more likely to have mental health issues. This is not to suggest our children cause us to have mental health issues, but the challenges we face can bring out some of those tendencies. The chronic, on-going, on-call, adrenaline filled days that never end can turn into something more serious. Not only that, but many special needs parents experience trauma because of medical complications their children have to endure (and the kids do too!).

Mental illness is the second leading cause of disability. 1 out of 4 people have a mental illness. For women, 1 out of 5 women will struggle with mental illness at some point in their lives. It is a lot more common than people think.

We do not realize how prevalent it is because people keep quiet because of the stigma.

Clinical or situational depression is not the same as feeling really sad.

The signs of depression are different for everyone, but when they last for more than four weeks and they interfere with our ability to interact with life, we are at a point in life when we need help.

Sometimes we hold on for so long that when we can finally let go we fall apart.

Some women feel like they are bad moms because of how their mental illness affects them, but that is not true, there is a difference between a bad mom and a sick mom.

Mental health issues can amplify with our life’s circumstances.

You feel what you feel, and you have to work through it.

Getting the help you need looks different for everyone, it could be medication, support groups, therapists, counselors, psychiatrists, reach out to people and create authentic friendships, exercise, diet.

Nobody has the time for life overhauls, sometimes small changes can really make a difference, it is something.

You are worth it! To be who you need to be for your family you need to take care of yourself and do something about any mental health issues you have. Sometimes the most loving thing you can do for your family is put yourself first.

Taking care of ourselves is not a selfish thing to do.

Mental health illness is a family illness. It affects everyone in the family, your friends, your church.

Mental health issues can affect our marriage too. Not everyone has a spouse who is supportive or understanding. This is why if you feel like you do not have a teammate, getting help is so important.

We are made for community. Sometimes our inclination is to move inward, rather than move outward and ask for help.

We all have individual journeys, but we all have to start the journey

Dealing with the Cold and Snow

Now that the holidays are done and all the pretty decorations and lights are down, things can really start to look gloomy. Especially with all this snow we now have on the ground. Everywhere you look all you see is white, white and more white. Then there is the ice that keeps you slipping and sliding around. It seems like every week there is a new storm coming through and you just wonder where can you possibly put any more snow? You can barely see around some corners the piles are so high and you are afraid you are going to get hit by a car. Then there is the problem with even trying to walk on the sidewalks. Some have been cleared but there are many that still are not clear and you have to risk walking on the street and who wants that?

So what does a person do when you can not get out a lot and you are starting to feel a little down? This winter has been a hard one at times and even I have been having a difficult time keeping that happy face around. I have offered to send the snow to other places but since that is not a possibility I guess we must find other avenues to uplift our spirits because Mother Nature is not helping. Usually this time of year my kids would love to be out throwing snowballs and just playing in the snow but the snow in the yard is taller than my 7 year old. How would he even play?

I try to open up the shades every single day even when it is gloomy outside because I find that if I keep them closed I feel more down. Even if there is only a tiny bit of sunshine it does brighten my mood a little and every little bit helps. I love to read, so I will make myself a nice warm cup of coffee, add my favorite creamer to it, find my favorite blanket because I am always freezing and curl up and read one of my many favorite books. I will be lost for hours. If I want to actually brave the cold and get a little exercise I will go to the mall and walk around just to get out of the house and you never know who you may run in to while you are there. It is always fun just to see what is new.

There are those times I want to get out of the house but not be around a lot of people so depending on the time I find Barnes and Noble is a good place to hang around. I can lose myself in the books or get a wonderful coffee and stay warm yet be in different surroundings. It lifts my moods up. I also find journaling can be helpful to get all that frustration out. Another great tool I find helpful is a gratitude list to just remind me all the things I have to be thankful for.  Every once and awhile I just need to do something silly and paint my nails or try to do something new with my hair. Anything to get through these long cold days. I also like to write on my blog and there is nothing like sending silly things on Facebook to your friends.

I am lucky that when my kids are home I have a 7 year old that loves to play Trouble. I can not tell you how many games I have had to play already. We play Memory and Go Fish and that is great fun. Then they have school and I do like my games on my tablet. None of my children will play Scrabble with me so it is great that I can now play it by myself. It helps my mind and gets me through these long winter days. I also found these wonderful puzzle books like Sudoku and Logic puzzles. They keep me busy for hours. I light my favorite scented candle and go those puzzles. It is wonderful.

Thankfully winter does not last forever, although it may feel that way at times. Sometimes we just have to find little comforting things to do to help us get through those winter blues. What it comes down to is you have to find things that make you happy and keep you busy. If you keep yourself distracted with fun things you like you won’t have time to get so sad about all this snow. Spring will get here….eventually.