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In the United States, 1 in 59 children aged eight and older are on the autism spectrum. And that number is expected to rise.

When you consider the increasing rates of autism, it is very likely that everyone has encountered someone on the spectrum at one time or another. However, they might not have even realized it.

April marks Autism Awareness Month, an opportunity to raise understanding, beyond the statistics, about people who are differently abled. It is about real people — children, adults and families affected. As a community, it’s important to take time to pause and learn more about this integral part of our population. Inclusion is important for everyone and individuals with autism should not be left out.

At Sierra Academy of San Diego, we serve students in grades 1-12 and adults aged 18-22 with autism spectrum exceptionalities, specific learning disabilities, intellectual disabilities, other health impairments, and emotional disabilities. Every day, we work to help our students, 60 percent of whom are on the spectrum, grow into well-adapted adults. In fact, our greatest measure of success is when parents and guardians tell us how amazed they are at how well their child is doing in situations and interactions with other members of the community.

In addition to providing our students with an excellent education, we have many partnerships in place that allow our students to gain job experience. We typically place one to three students who meet company standards and requirements at a work site. During this time, a job coach will accompany them to help set them up for success. It’s fulfilling to watch as the San Diego business community comes together to help accommodate our students’ skills and interests. Our team works hard to help our students become happy and productive members of society.

People sometimes do not see all the ways our students can contribute. Autism Awareness Month is a time to shed light on their abilities, and how we can embrace and include them. Their inclusion is beneficial for everyone.

Autism isn’t a label that defines my students. One thing that I would like everyone to know about kids with autism is that what defines them is their own personality and determination. Children and teenagers with autism deserve the very best education. I’m proud to go to work every day and help create a path to success, regardless of learning obstacles or other challenges.

Brandi Eagling, M.S., is the program director at the Sierra Academy of San Diego.

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