Autism is on the rise in the United States, where one in 110 children, or 8 percent of 8-year-olds, has an autism spectrum disorder, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
Among those children is Signal Mountain High School student Denver Dressler. He has Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism which he said in his case is best described as severe ADHD.
"A lot of people have heard of it but have no idea what it is," he said of autism.
For his school senior project, Dressler wants to raise community awareness about autism in the hope that his efforts increase understanding as well as resources available for others with ASD.
"Children do not need to be laughed at when they make noises or have odd body movements," he said Dressler, adding that he has personally experienced being picked on at school. "Children [with ASD] need to be treated the same as anyone else."
To the greatest extent possible, Dressler is treated like any other student at SMHS, where he is the only autistic student in his classes, he said. He has an interpreter who has accompanied him to all of his classes since he was in the third grade.
"The teacher sometimes talks too fast to type," explained Dressler, who has trouble writing and therefore uses computers to type his schoolwork.
Dressler is also nearly deaf in one ear, which he corrects by wearing a hearing aid, and his interpreter helps him keep up with the teacher as he is typing notes in class. Otherwise, he requires little assistance to do the same work as the other students, he said.
While his teachers do little things to make him feel more comfortable in the classroom, said Dressler, he feels autistic students could use more attention.
"They might feel left out," he said. "Members of the community need to be more understanding that kids with autism are different."
He said he hopes that by increasing awareness about autism in the community, he can also expand the opportunities available for older children with autism.
"When I was younger I reaped more benefits than I do now," said Dressler in regards to the availability and adequacy of resources in the community for children with autism.
He said he no longer receives the speech, language and occupational therapy services he was provided as a Thrasher Elementary student. Other families with autistic children he has spoken with seem to have a similar experience; as one gets older, opportunities such as summer camps and therapy services disappear, he said.
Dressler thinks summer programs held at the library or local community centers could be helpful in providing fun activities or assistance with social skills. He also encourages area businesses to be more open to hiring people with autism, at least on a part-time basis.
"[People with autism] can be taught the skills they need for a job," said Dressler, who currently does accounting work for his father and said he would like his future profession to be in hotel management.
He hopes younger students will have a better understanding of autism after hearing the talk he has planned for SMMHS sixth-graders during the school's Community and Services Day. Dressler said he also plans to increase awareness among parents by speaking at an upcoming PTA meeting.