What Is Autism?
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental disability; signs typically appear during early childhood and affect a person’s ability to communicate, and interact with others. ASD is defined by a certain set of behaviors and is a “spectrum condition” that affects individuals differently and to varying degrees. There is no known single cause of autism, but increased awareness and early diagnosis/intervention and access to appropriate services/supports lead to significantly improved outcomes. Some of the behaviors associated with autism include delayed learning of language; difficulty making eye contact or holding a conversation; difficulty with executive functioning, which relates to reasoning and planning; narrow, intense interests; poor motor skills’ and sensory sensitivities. Again, a person on the spectrum might follow many of these behaviors or just a few, or many others besides. The diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder is applied based on analysis of all behaviors and their severity.
In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued their ADDM autism prevalence report. The report concluded that the prevalence of autism had risen to 1 in every 68 births in the United States – nearly twice as great as the 2004 rate of 1 in 125 – and almost 1 in 54 boys. The spotlight shining on autism as a result has opened opportunities for the nation to consider how to serve families facing a lifetime of supports for their children. In June 2014, researchers estimated the lifetime cost of caring for a child with autism is as great as $2.4 million. The Autism Society estimates that the United States is facing almost $90 billion annually in costs for autism. (This figure includes research, insurance costs and non-covered expenses, Medicaid waivers for autism, educational spending, housing, transportation, employment, related therapeutic services and caregiver costs.)
Know the signs: Early identification can change lives
Autism is treatable. Children do not “outgrow” autism, but studies show that early diagnosis and intervention lead to significantly improved outcomes. For more information on developmental milestones, visit the CDC’s “Know the Signs. Act Early” site.
HERE ARE SOME SIGNS TO LOOK FOR IN THE CHILDREN IN YOUR LIFE:
- Lack of or delay in spoken language
- Repetitive use of language and/or motor mannerisms (e.g., hand-flapping, twirling objects)
- Little or no eye contact
- Lack of interest in peer relationships
- Lack of spontaneous or make-believe play
- Persistent fixation on parts of objects
Every person with autism is an individual, and like all individuals, has a unique personality and combination of characteristics. Some individuals who are mildly affected may exhibit only slight delays in language and greater challenges with social interactions. They may have difficulty initiating and/or maintaining a conversation. Their communication is often described as talking at others instead of to them (e.g., monologue on a favorite subject that continues despite attempts by others to interject comments).
For most of us, the integration of our senses helps us to understand what we are experiencing. For example, our sense of touch, smell and taste work together in the experience of eating a ripe peach: the feel of the peach’s skin, its sweet smell, and the juices running down your face. For children with autism, sensory integration problems are common, which may throw their senses off (they may be over- or under-active). The fuzz on the peach may actually be experienced as painful, and the smell may make the child gag. Some children with autism are particularly sensitive to sound, finding even the most ordinary daily noises painful. Many professionals feel that some of the typical behaviors of autism, like the ones listed above, are actually a result of sensory integration difficulties.
There are also many myths and misconceptions about autism. Contrary to popular belief, many children with autism do make eye contact; it just may be less often or different from a neuro-typical child. Many children with autism can develop good functional language and others can develop some type of communication skills, such as sign language or use of pictures. Children do not “outgrow” autism, but symptoms may lessen as the child develops and receives treatment.
One of the most devastating myths about children with autism is that they cannot show affection. While sensory stimulation is processed differently in some children, they can and do give affection. However, it may require patience on the parents’ part to accept and give love in the child’s terms.
The Autism Society of America promises to remain committed to improving the lives of all affected by autism across the spectrum and throughout the lifespan, and will focus on providing information, resources, and advocacy efforts to address these urgent needs. Christopher Banks, President & CEO of the Autism Society of America speaks about COVID-19.
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