Kyle Lininger is a licensed behavior analyst, as well as board president of the ASSA; Brie Seward is executive director of the local affiliate of the ASSA.

Tucson-based Autism Society of Southern Arizona (ASSA) feels it’s time to move beyond promoting awareness of autism spectrum disorder. It wants to encourage acceptance of people with the condition.

It plans to do that throughout April — World Autism Acceptance Month — with a new video collage that premieres at an April 2 event.

The “All in for Autism” video features community leaders and advocates for people with ASD talking about how Tucson supports the autism community. “This campaign is highlighting the incredible work organizations and people are doing in our community,” says Brie Seward, executive director of the local affiliate of the Autism Society of America.

The campaign’s launch event (limited to 100 vehicles) at Cactus Car Pool Cinema includes food trucks, give-aways and a feature film. Proceeds benefit ASSA.

For some 30 years, ASSA has been the source of services and events focused on people identified with ASD and their families. It provides lists of health care providers and therapists, runs educational programs and support groups, and provides information on other local resources.

“There’s a lot of help and there’s a community out there,” assures Kyle Lininger, a behavior analyst who’s ASSA board president. “Nobody who is going through this is alone.”

Especially popular are ASSA’s activities focused on social skills, including a social skills class, teen meetups and an adult social club. “Each program meets a direct need and connects people who are walking the autism journey,” explains Seward, whose child is on the autism spectrum.

“When you are in a support group and meet another parent who is walking in your same shoes, there is an instant bonding moment that occurs…. That is why we are here, to create connections.”

That connection helped Kate Elliott, whose two children have ASD diagnoses, to cope with the regret that her kids can’t attend many social events like sleepovers. “In the parent group, for the first time, I was able to meet other parents who understood,” says Elliott, who is an ASSA volunteer, “and that was a pretty amazing thing.”

The need for ASSA services continues to grow as more people become aware of the condition. In 2021, there was a 35% increase over 2020 in the number of families seeking help from the organization. The majority of contacts are people who live in Pima County areas with higher poverty rates. About 60% of people contacting ASSA are adults seeking an evaluation for themselves.

Seward says the greatest need is for more medical professionals who are qualified to diagnose ASD. There are waits of several months to see a developmental pediatrician, child neurologist, psychologist or psychiatrist who can do evaluations.

The demand for services will likely get bigger. About one in 40 Arizona eightyear- olds in 2018 were diagnosed or identified with ASD, according to the Arizona Developmental Disabilities Surveillance Program. In 2016, that prevalence was one in 63. Identification of four-year-olds with ASD also has risen to one in 99.

Better evaluations and increased awareness of symptoms by parents who then seek evaluations help drive awareness of the increasing prevalence of the disorder, especially among underdiagnosed groups like Hispanics and girls.

“One of the side effects of autism awareness, both positive and negative, is that a lot of people are now looking for autism,” says Lininger, who has a nephew with ASD.

ASSA currently works on creating community partnerships and finding other fundraising avenues to address demand. It also seeks the general public’s acceptance of people with ASD.

Says Seward: “My wish is for the sports coach to include an autistic athlete on the team, birthday invitations to be sent to kids with ASD, businesses to welcome autistic employees to learn life skills and be part of a team, and that through our efforts, we can inspire change.”