Around half of the children in foster care have a chronic disability. Autistic children, specifically, are 2.4 times more likely to be in foster care than their neurotypical peers.
Autism is a commonly misunderstood developmental disability that affects how people think, understand the world, move, communicate and socialize. It’s estimated that 1 in 59 people are autistic. While no two autistic people are alike, all autistic people share the fact that they perceive the world differently, and might act differently than others.
To shed light on the unique strengths and beauty the autistic community brings, we spoke with Mission Granbury Volunteer Coordinator Paula Prater and CASA volunteer Mary Malley about their experiences advocating for autistic children.
Paula has been a volunteer coordinator with the Granbury-based CASA program for nearly four years. She specializes in advocacy for autistic children and children with special needs, and her heart for this work stems from the fact that her son is autistic. Like any other diagnosis, it has come with its own set of challenges—but is also a huge part of what makes her son special.
“He’s just really fun. He has a real sweet spirit and a real loving heart,” Paula said. “He’s smart in different ways….He loves rollercoasters and he can tell you any fact about parks across the country. He can tell you facts about an amusement park in Japan!”
Autism looks different for every person, and every person has a different level of support needs, hence the term “autism spectrum.” Some people, like Paula’s son, love to talk about their special interests. Some have differences in how they move or talk. Some process their senses differently—for example, they might be extra sensitive to sound, or light. Some autistic people do repetitive motions, like rocking back and forth, flapping their hands, or making certain noises—this is called stimming. These are just a few examples of what the autism spectrum can look like.
People who don’t know much about autism might be afraid or uncomfortable when they’re exposed to certain behaviors associated with it, Paula said. When asked how CASA volunteers can best support autistic children in foster care, she explained: be curious, be open minded, and meet them where they are. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, both with the young people and their caregivers.
“Society tends to undervalue or underestimate these children,” she said. “They are going to have their own boundaries, desires, dreams, whether they can articulate them or not… it just might take longer to see. But ask!”
One CASA volunteer Paula supervises, Mary Malley, worked as a substitute high school teacher for about three years, mostly in special education, before becoming a CASA volunteer. Right now, she is advocating for Sam* a 19-year-old young man living in a residential treatment center in Denton. Sam is autistic. Though he doesn’t speak, Mary said, he is a great communicator in other ways.
“He’s really smart,” Mary said. “He mainly just, with me, writes on a tablet. I’m so impressed, because he’s faster on a tablet than I am speaking to him!”
Sam’s case is ongoing. In a recent hearing, it was decided that after he graduates from school at age 22, he will go to a different group home. For now, Mary works to see that he is happy and safe in his placement, and that he knows she is there for him.
In addition to communicating with her on his tablet, Sam also writes her letters and emails. He loves to help and to serve—for example, one of his jobs at his school is to pick up trash, which he tells Mary all about and clearly takes pride in.
“I feel like he’s always happy, and he’s always interested in you and how you are,” she said. “I just try to see if he can have a good day.”
Every child and youth in foster care deserves a dedicated advocate by their side. Autistic young people are no exception—they deserve someone who will get to know them, celebrate their strengths, help them through their challenges and ensure their voice is heard.
“Just be with them! Get to know them!” Paula said. “And you’re going to find out they’ve got the greatest hearts. They’ve got such unique abilities and personalities that are just waiting to be known.”
Interested in learning more about autism? This free book from the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, Welcome to the Autistic Community, is a great place to start! You can also watch the video below to learn more about the community.
*Name changed for confidentiality.