By Kirsteen McLay-Knopp
One in 68 of our world’s children is diagnosed as being on the Autism Spectrum: as having “ASD”, Autism Spectrum Disorder. Autism occurs across all racial and ethnic groups and is almost five times more common among boys (1 in 42) as it is among girls (1 in 89). [Stats source: http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html]. World Autism Awareness Day is April 2nd.
So what exactly is autism? Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. ASD can be associated with intellectual disability, difficulties in motor coordination and attention as well as physical health issues such as sleep and gastrointestinal disturbances. Some people with ASD excel in visual skills, music, maths and art. Doctors include autism in a group including Asperger syndrome and others. These conditions occur when the brain develops differently and has trouble with an important job: making sense of the world.
The reasons for a child being on the Autistic Spectrum are as varied as the children themselves. Most cases of autism appear to be caused by a combination of autism risk genes and environmental factors influencing early brain development. In the presence of “autism risk genes”, a number of non-genetic, or “environmental,” stresses appear to increase a child’s risk. These include a child born of older parents, maternal illness during pregnancy and deprivation of oxygen to baby’s brain during the birth experience.
What does the world look like through the eyes of a child with autism? Every day, our brains interpret the things we see, smell, hear, taste, touch, and experience. But when someone’s brain has trouble understanding these things, it can make it hard to talk, listen, understand, play, and learn. A child’s symptoms can be mild, severe, or somewhere in the middle. For example, some children might be upset by too many noises or by sounds that are too loud. Those with milder symptoms don’t mind loud noises so much. Someone with mild symptoms might need only a little help. A child with severe symptoms, however, might need a lot of help with learning and doing everyday stuff. Some severely autistic children are non-verbal.
A child with an autism spectrum disorder might:
- have trouble learning the meaning of words
- do the same thing over and over, like saying the same word or moving his or her body the same way over and over, “stimming”– short for “self stimulation”.
- move his or her arms or body in a certain (unusual) way
- have trouble adjusting to changes (like trying new foods, having a relief teacher, or having toys moved from their usual places)
- be obsessed with one thing (cars, trains, computers) to the point of having no other interests.
Some issues — like not wanting to try new foods, not wanting anyone to move your toys, being obsessed with one thing — affect lots of children, not just those who have an autism spectrum disorder. But kids with these disorders have more trouble “growing out of it” and learning to handle stuff that’s challenging and annoying.
People with autism often can’t make the connections that others make easily. For example, when people smile, you know they feel happy or friendly; when people look mad, you can tell by their face or their voice. But many kids with autism spectrum disorders have trouble understanding what emotions look like and what another person is thinking. They might act in a way that seems unusual, and it can be hard to understand why they’re doing it.
Imagine trying to understand what your teacher is saying if you didn’t know what her words really mean (a good analogy is if you were in a classroom where the teacher spoke a language which was foreign to you). It is even more frustrating and upsetting for a child if he or she can’t come up with the right words to express his or her own thoughts, or tell a parent what they need or want.
Figuring out if a child has an autism spectrum disorder can be difficult in the beginning. Symptoms tend to present between 2-3 years of age. A parent is usually the first to think that something could be unusual. Maybe the child is old enough to speak but doesn’t. Maybe he or she doesn’t seem interested in people, has a hard time playing with others, or acts in unusual ways. Autism cannot be definitively diagnosed until around 18 to 24 months, but research shows that children as young as 8 to 12 months may exhibit early signs. Parents should look for symptoms such as no back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles or other facial expressions by 9 months; no babbling or back-and-forth gestures (e.g. pointing) by 12 months; or any loss of babbling, speech or social skills at any age.
Often, specialists work together as a team to figure out if there is a problem. In addition to the doctor, the team might include a psychologist, speech therapist, occupational therapist and teacher (or different combinations of these).
There is no cure for autism, but doctors, therapists, and special education teachers can help kids “on the spectrum” learn to communicate better. A child might learn sign language or get a message across by pointing at pictures. The care team can also help improve his or her social skills: stuff like taking turns and playing in a group.
Some children who have mild symptoms will finish high school and may go to university and live independently. Many (particularly those with more severe symptoms) will always need some kind of help. But all will have brighter futures when they have the support and understanding of their families, doctors, teachers, therapists, and friends.
Statistics show a ten-fold increase in the prevalence of autism over the last 40 years and this continues to grow. [Source: https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism]. There is no established explanation for this continuing increase, although improved diagnosis and environmental influences are two reasons often considered. Careful research shows that this increase is only partly explained by improved diagnosis and awareness.
Every year, autism organizations around the world celebrate April 2nd, World Autism Awareness Day with unique fundraising and awareness-raising events. One of these is “Light it up Blue”. This campaign was launched in 2010 in the USA by Autism Speaks, to raise international awareness of what it means to be on the Autism Spectrum. Iconic landmarks around the globe as well as airports, bridges, museums, concert halls, restaurants, hospitals, and retail stores, are among more than 100 structures in over 16 U.S. cities and nine countries around the world lit up in bright blue for World Autism Awareness Day.
Another symbol of World Autism Awareness Day is the brightly coloured “puzzle” ribbons worn. The “Autism Society” of the USA describes the ribbon in the following way: “The puzzle pattern reflects the mystery and complexity of the autism spectrum. The different colors and shapes represent the diversity of the people and families living with the condition. The brightness of the ribbon signals hope — hope that through increased awareness of autism, and through early intervention and appropriate treatments, people with autism will lead fuller, more complete lives”.
Someone once said “ignorance is just a lack of awareness.”