It’s April, readers, and April is Autism Awareness Month. Autism has become extremely prevalent in recent years, and yet we know very little about it, so for today’s post, I wanted to discuss what autism is and why it is important.
A couple weeks ago, the Richmond Times Dispatch posted an article online about a recent government survey that revealed 1 in 50 schoolchildren in the United States has autism. Prior to this study the statistics had been 1 in 88.
The rise in autism is attributed not to a higher occurrence but instead a higher frequency of children being diagnosed with it. What this means is that doctors are better able to diagnose children with autism, especially those with mild cases.
I have had a little experience with autistic children. I spent three years teaching in Central Asia, and during my time there I got to know a group of people who volunteered at an orphanage where many of the children had autism. I spent afternoons and Saturdays with these children, and I came to an understanding about autism that is often ignored by our media: autism is as unique as the individual it affects. Just as each child is special, so is each case. By carelessly tossing around the term “autism,” I think we risk creating a culture of ignorance and even fear.
So, what is autism?
Autism is often used as an umbrella term, but it’s actually a part of a variety of developmental disorders known as autism spectrum disorders. These disorders affect a person in their communication, interaction, and relationships with other people. Other affects of autism are found in repetitive behaviors and routines.
People with autism spectrum disorders will not have all of the same symptoms but rather a unique combination. They will also differ in severity. Some cases are extremely mild while others are more severe.
There are five disorders you should know:
- Autistic Disorder (Social interaction and communication is impaired. Child may exhibit repetitive behavioral patterns or restricted behavior.)
- Asperger’s Syndrome (Social interaction is impaired and child displays restricted interest and/or activities. Children often display average to above-average intelligence.)
- Pervasive Developmental Disorder (Child displays symptoms of autism spectrum disorders but cannot be diagnosed with autistic disorder or Asperger’s syndrome. Severe impairments in social interaction and communication as well as restricted or repetitive behavioral patterns.)
- Retts Disorder (Occurs only in girls and appears after a period of normal development with a loss of skills. Girls are often unable to use their hands purposefully and instead display repetitive hand movements.)
- Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (Child exhibits normal development until about age 2. Previously acquired skills are lost suddenly and significantly.)
(Information taken from the Virginia Autism Resource Center)
There is no known cause for these disorders and there are numerous theories ranging from genetics to pregnancy and delivery to environmental factors. Regardless of the why or the how, we should instead focus on the who – autism shows no discrimination and affects people of all ethnicities, incomes, lifestyles, and education.
When I would visit the children in the orphanage, there was one little boy that stood out to me. His name was Arslan. Arslan had autism, and when I first met him I assumed that his disorder would mean he would be withdrawn. He was, in his own way. Arslan didn’t speak, which didn’t matter because my Russian was limited anyway, and he didn’t maintain eye contact well. But as I came to the orphanage and saw him more, I saw that Arslan had a warm and compassionate heart. He loved people. And he loved cars. Every car, truck, and plane he saw – whether outside or on TV – evoked a response from Arslan. He would point and say, “Beep-beep!” The day a helicopter flew over the orphanage playground he was ecstatic.
Arslan would take my hand and walk with me around the playground. He’d run to meet me and give me a hug and a kiss on the cheek. And some days we would sit side-by-side in silence. He would be withdrawn, and I wouldn’t know what to do, but after awhile he’d take my hand, and I would know that he was okay.
As he grew older, his struggles changed, but he was still my little buddy. I consider him a brother, not a nameless child with a disorder I don’t understand.
My experiences with Arslan and the other children at that orphanage have given me an understanding of autism spectrum disorders, but it has also given me an understanding of the people who have autism spectrum disorders. I now have faces and personalities attached to these clinical words, and I am gratful for that.
I’m not writing this post to scare you or sensationalize autism. I’m writing this post because autism is important for you to know about. Autism is not a prison sentence for your child. It is not simple, it is not easy, but it is not something to fear. April is Autism Awareness Month, and I would encourage you to take this month to educate yourselves about autism and what it means for families. If you have a child with autism or know of a child with autism and would like to find resources and help, I suggest looking into your area’s autism services and communities.
For those of you in Virginia, I would recommend the following,