You may be surprised to learn that the Autism Society has been observing April as the National Autism Awareness Month for more than 40 years. This was done to shed a “light” on Autism to bring awareness about the disorder to the American public, as well as to educate those unfamiliar with autism. I find it surprising that April has been Autism Awareness Month since the ’70s, because before beginning work in the mental health field a little more than a decade ago, I had never heard of Autism.
I very quickly became fascinated with Autism for the very reason that if you meet one autistic person, you have met one autistic person. Let that statement sink in for a second. Autism has such a broad spectrum (many symptoms and many different severities of affect) that no two autistic people are affected in the same manner, and the causes of autism still greatly remain a mystery. I was so fascinated that I became a host home provider (similar to foster care), and I have since adopted an autistic child. I am so fascinated with autism and have conducted so much research into autism that I find it difficult to write about. Perhaps that is because autism now affects me on a personal level, not just a professional level. I can say beyond my professional fascination with autism, as a parent, even one who volunteered to parent a child with autism…as a parent, you become an expert in your specialty, which IS your child.
You may also be surprised to learn the statistics for the increasing prevalence of autism in America. In 2000, 1 in 150 children were diagnosed with autism (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012). A short four years later, in 2004, that increased to 1 in 125 (2012). Two years later, 2006, it was 1 in 110 (2012). Two more years, 2008, sees another rise to 1 in 88 (2012). It is estimated that the year 2013 will see another increase to 1 in 50 children diagnosed with autism. That is an increase of approximately 80% in a decade! Perhaps this increase in diagnoses is due to increased knowledge of and diagnosis of the disorder. Perhaps this increase is due to environmental influences such as pollution. We really do not know, for a fact, why the rate of diagnosis is increasing so dramatically. Are you concerned yet? With statistics like this, if you don’t know someone with autism right now, you will soon. Autism shows no regard for race, socioeconomic status, or any other demographic; although currently, it does gender, occurring five times more frequently in boys than in girls at a rate of 1 in 54 versus 1 in 252, respectively (2012).
So what is autism? Autism is a neurological disorder that affects a person’s learning and behavior. Contrary to belief, individuals with autism are quite capable of learning; some are even geniuses. However, accommodations must be made for behaviors, sensory difficulties, and to present information in the individual’s unique style of learning. Skills may fluctuate from day to day and environment to environment due to anxiety, ability to concentrate and process information, and other factors. The individual could range from below average to above average skills in spatial, verbal, or memory, yet find it difficult to express him or herself or interact with others.
It is a commonly held misconception that all children and adults with autism are non-verbal, cannot make eye contact, demonstrate affection, demonstrate imaginative play, lie, express or even feel emotions; however, this is incorrect. Autistic individuals may do any or all the above. Autistic individual may exhibit any of the below symptoms, and typically will exhibit about half in any order (as mentioned earlier, each individual is affected differently). The symptoms that an autistic individual has may range from mild to severe for each symptom that presents. Behaviors can be isolated to a specific environment, event, person, or situation, is not age appropriate, be affected by hormones, and can appear and disappear “out of the blue.”
The DSM IV gives clear definitions and diagnostic criteria for autism, but is difficult for a layperson to understand and make sense of. After all, what do these criteria mean? What do the symptoms look like for an average person to be able to recognize them? Many of the symptoms listed below have examples after them of things I see or have seen with my child or with other children and adults with whom I have worked over the years.
- · Severe language deficits
- · Prefers to be alone (play alone) and may appear to be acting aloof
- · Insistence on sameness or resists changes, particularly to routines
- · Need for routines
- · Have a difficult time expressing needs, may use gestures or pointing versus words
- · Echolalia (repeating words or phrases in place of normal language)
- · Delay or no learning to talk (almost half of autistic individuals never speak)
- · Loss of language skills
- · Not initiating conversation or interaction with others
- · Spinning self or watching objects spin
- · Laughing, crying or demonstrating distress for no apparent reason
- · Tantrums, displays of extreme distress for no apparent reason (The difference between an autistic tantrum and a spoiled child tantrum is that the autistic individual is having trouble processing something within their environment, such as noises, whereas a spoiled child tantrum is to achieve a goal.)
- · Sensitivity to noises, lights, touch and other visual, physical, or auditory stimuli
- · Difficulty interacting/socializing with others
- · Difficulty understanding facial expressions or body language
- · Difficulty understanding someone else’s feelings, apparent lack of empathy
- · Difficulty understanding implied meaning such as sarcasm or humor
- · Failure to make friends the same age
- · Seeming uninterested in sharing enjoyment, accomplishments, or interests (may not point out the pretty rainbow or getting an ‘A’ on an important test to share with parents)
- · Uneven gross or fine motor skills (difficulty picking up small objects or climbing stairs)
- · Lack of fear or understanding of dangers (climb on top of a house to stand at the edge and look down or running out in traffic)
- · Difficulty understanding social cues
- · Over fixation on something (only wants to play with balls or obsessed with bees, staring at flashing lights)
- · May resist cuddling, hugging or other physical touch
- · Little or no eye contact
- · Persistent “odd” play (laying on balls, climbing everything)
- · Finger, hand, or arm flapping
- · Toe-walking
- · Rocking
- · Unusual attachment to objects
- · Difficulty emotionally attaching to people (including parents and siblings)
- · Savant skills (better than average memory)
- · Unresponsive to “normal” teaching strategies
- · Over or under sensitivity to touch and pain (may include self-injurious behaviors)
- · May seek out or be calmed by deep pressure
- · Incontinence (that isn’t age appropriate)
- · Strong food aversions (will only eat soft foods)
- · Unable to regulate food consumption (may continue eating long after reasonably full)
- · May eat inedible things such as soil, sand, plants, etc
- · Strong clothing aversions (will never wear silks or jeans)
- · Easily observable over or under physical activity (similar to ADHD)
- · Unresponsive to verbal cues, may act as if deaf even if hearing tests within normal ranges
- · Difficulty going to and staying asleep
- · Unacceptable social behaviors (approaching strangers, grabbing arm or leg fat, public masturbation)
Some believe the increase in the diagnosis of autism is becoming an epidemic; however, I have heard no banter about over diagnosing as is being bartered back and forth with ADHD. There is a segment of autism activists who are certain that childhood vaccinations are partly to blame for the increase in autism related to those who suddenly lose language skills around the age of two following seeming normal development (this article is not addressing that belief). Yet others believe the increase is due to increasing disregard to the Earth and her resources: increasing pollution, harmful chemicals, etc. Still others believe that autism derives from genetic abnormalities. Finally, many believe there is no increase in autism, just an increase in early diagnosis and intervention due to increased recognition of the disorder. The cause(s) of autism are still well debated, researched, and still unknown. What we do know is the need for understanding, awareness, recognition, advocacy, education, more research, and more funding for current and improving treatment is, indeed, sorely needed.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012). New data on autism spectrum disorders. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/features/countingautism.