NUTLEY — You're a parent of a child who's described as neurotypical, or not exhibiting autistic patterns of thought or behavior. But a classmate of your child is on the autism spectrum. Before you plan a playdate or a large gathering like a birthday party for your kid, what do you need to know about autism in order to encourage a comfortable level of interaction for all?

Autism education is crucial in this sense, and it continues to improve in the Garden State, which has the highest rate of diagnoses in the country. However, the need for more specialized services remains high, according to Julie Mower, executive director of The Phoenix Center, which currently serves 145 students and their families across 61 towns in eight New Jersey counties.

The Phoenix Center does not diagnose autism, though Mower said catching it as early as possible is critical. Her group helps individuals ages 5 through 21 assimilate into a classroom and eventually transitions them for adult occupations with the goal of making them functional, independent, happy and successful.

Yet there are still many potential situations involving those with autism that happen outside the classroom or workplace, and which neurotypical children and their parents may not know how to handle. So during this Autism Awareness Month, Mower offered some tips to increase understanding of the disorder.

First, she said, it is important to include children with autism in the social plans of their neurotypical peers. Someone who has autism may not look a classmate directly in the eye, and may tend toward "parallel play" — that is to say, playing next to someone instead of actively with them — but that doesn't mean that child is wholly disengaged.

"It truly is a spectrum, so one child may have issues with eye contact or with loud noises — another child may not at all," she said.

Also, autism hinges on a "sense of sameness," especially for young children who "thrive on things being predictable," according to Mower. She gave the example of dinosaurs as a topic that a child with autism might know a lot about, and how a friend might not understand why that kid would talk incessantly about a single subject. But she preaches patience and suggests the friend inject some of his or her knowledge of dinosaurs as a way of steering the conversation forward.

"Kids with autism want what other kids want," Mower said. "They really just want friends. They want to develop friendships and be included."

Paying attention to the ever-growing national conversation on autism is another way to educate yourself, Mower said, citing last year's "outstanding" introduction of puppet character Julia on "Sesame Street." And, most of all, she stressed one of The Phoenix Center's core values: remembering that every child who is dealing with autism is someone's son or daughter.

Patrick Lavery produces "New Jersey's First News" and is New Jersey 101.5's morning drive breaking news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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