By CAITLIN TEW
April is National Autism Awareness Month and even though awareness has grown significantly in recent years, many misconceptions, and misunderstandings still exist. The current estimate according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is that Autism Spectrum Disorders occur in about one out of every 68 children. It is also five times more common in boys than girls.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is classified as a neurodevelopmental disorder, meaning it affects the way the brain develops. Currently, there are no medical tests for autism. A diagnosis is made by a professional based on several components including direct observation, rating scales, and family interviews. Autism can be reliably diagnosed around age two, but in some cases it has been reported that signs were detected at an even younger age.
The exact cause of autism has been a heated debate for many years and remains unknown. However, the one thing most everyone agrees on is that early detection and intervention is key. There is no cure for autism, but early intervention services have been shown to lead to the best outcomes. This is where spreading awareness becomes crucial and very beneficial. The more that people are aware of autism, the more likely they are to detect early warning signs, leading to earlier intervention.
Autism affects each person differently and to varying degrees. “If you have seen one person with autism, you have seen one person with autism,” is a commonly used phrase in the autism community. In broad terms, autism affects the way individuals behave, communicate, and interact socially.
Unlike some other developmental disabilities, autism does not have associated physical characteristics, and therefore there is no specific “look” to an individual with an ASD. One common misconception is that all individuals with autism dislike any physical contact and prefer to sit alone and rock back and forth. While it is true that these or similar behaviors can occur with autism, it is certainly not the case that they occur in every situation. Some individuals with an ASD have behavior patterns that make them immediately stand out, while others may have no noticeable signs.
So what should parents, professionals, family members, and others look for? As discussed earlier, autism varies widely from person to person, but here are some early warning signs:
- Does not respond to name by 12 months old
- Does not point out objects for others attention by 14 months old
- Does not play “pretend” or imaginary games
- May become overly fixated with parts of objects (i.e. the wheels of a toy car)
- Prefers to stick to a strict routine, and may become upset if that routine changes
- Delayed speech and language skills, or possibly developing speech and language that begins to regress around age two or three
- Unusual reactions to certain sounds, tastes, smells, or textures
- Repetition of specific sounds, words, or phrases
- May become overly fixated on specific objects or types of objects that do not serve an obvious purpose (i.e. carrying a wooden spoon at all times, only wanting to play with things that are long and straight like pens and straws)
It is important to note that the presence of one or more of these “red flags” does not necessarily mean an individual has an ASD. However, if you notice these or other signs, and are concerned, it is best to see a professional for an evaluation. There are also many resources such as general information and screening tools available online.
April is about spreading autism awareness, acceptance, and understanding. The incidence rate of Autism Spectrum Disorders is the highest it has ever been, and has been steadily increasing over the past years. There is no cure, but there is hope. Many individuals with ASDs grow up to lead completely independent and successful lives.
People with Autism Spectrum Disorders are just that, people. They just see life with a different view.
Caitlin Tew is the Program Coordinator for Autism Spectrum Centers of Mississippi and serves as the Behavior Specialist for New Summit School.