April is National Autism Awareness Month. It is a time set aside to help inform the community about autism and to bring about understanding to a condition which affects millions of children each year. In order to highlight the growing need for concern and awareness about autism, the Autism Society has been celebrating National Autism Awareness Month since the 1970s. The United States recognizes April as a special opportunity for everyone to educate the public about autism and issues within the autism community.
Autism is a neurological and biological disorder that typically affects children between the ages in 18 months to five years of age. Autism currently affects one in every 88 children today. It is estimated there are over one million people in the United States alone with autism. Autism affects each individual differently and at different levels of severity. Some people with autism are severely affected, cannot speak, require constant one-on-one care, and are never able to live independently. While others who have less severe symptoms, can communicate, and eventually acquire the necessary skills to live on their own.
For Adam and Angela Slaughter of Russellville, the reality of autism began when their son David was just 15 months old. Up until then, everything seemed to be moving normally for their child. He was walking and began speaking and was on target with what a 15 month old should be doing.
“It was as if somebody sneaked into our house and stole our child, leaving just his body behind,” said Angela, when her son just suddenly stopped talking.
The couple knew something wasn’t right, but wasn’t sure what it was. When Angela began searching the Internet for her son’s symptoms, she quickly became familiar with autism and the fear began to set in.
“I felt like I kind of knew, but really didn’t want to believe it,” said Angela, who took David to a doctor and eventually had him tested. Angela’s suspicions proved true and her son was eventually diagnosed with classic autism.
“Of course it was hard to hear,” said Angela. “I don’t even remember driving home from the appointment. I was in shock.”
But Angela said she knew she couldn’t take the time to be mulled down about it and needed to do everything she could to help her son and thus began educating herself about autism.
“If you ever feel like something is wrong with your child, don’t be afraid to go and find out what it is, even if you are afraid of the answer. And if you cannot find a doctor who will listen to you, keep looking for one that will,” said Angela.
Angela said it is very important to be a voice for your child. She said autism is very misunderstood and the public needs to learn about it because the number is rising every year and there are children and adults who suffer with autism in most every community.
“Parents who have children with autism do not want people’s sympathy. We just want their understanding,” said Angela, who works with others in Logan County on bringing about awareness. The more people that are educated, the more understanding there will be and the less afraid they are, said Angela.
One in every 88 children in the U.S. have been diagnosed with autism. These statistics are endorsed by the CDC, American Academy of Pediatrics, and other federal organizations. Autism is a life-long disability for many affected individuals. Autism affects each individual uniquely. People affected with autism live a normal life span. It is estimated that there are approximately one million people in the US affected with autism. Autism is the most common developmental disability in California (and many other states). It is now more common that Down Syndrome, Mental Retardation, and Cystic Fibrosis combined.
Typically, autism affects individuals in five key areas: communication (verbal and non-verbal), social skills, behaviors, learning and medical issue. Autism often strikes boys more often than girls – roughly four times more common in boys.
Some children who receive an early diagnosis, intense behavioral intervention, medical treatment, and speech therapy will lead typical lives. Not all people diagnosed with autism receive such an early diagnosis or enjoy this outcome.
“Finding out early can help,” said Angela. “I know there are some parents who are afraid to take their children to the doctor to find out. They are afraid of what they will hear. But this only hurts your child, who could be getting help right away.”
Angela says that a lot of parents blame themselves, but they shouldn’t. This is just an attitude that will get you down and keep you from focusing on the real truth.
“Try not to worry about the ‘what ifs,’” said Angela. “We never know what tomorrow will bring for these children.”
The common misconception with autism is that all autistics are like the actor Dustin Hoffman in his portrayal in the movie Rain Man. His character possessed an amazing mathematical skill of adding enormous amounts of objects or counting cards in a deck. This example is a Hollywood portrayal and is not the case with all individuals affected by autism. His performance is to be applauded, but it was only that: a performance, and should not be considered as an example of autism today.
People diagnosed with autism process, respond, and interact with information in different ways. In some cases, individuals with autism may not be able to speak, may have self stimulatory behaviors (such as hand flapping, vocal utterances, repetitive behaviors), may be aggressive or be self-injurious. Each individual with autism is affected differently. But like with all people – not all individuals with autism are alike.
Angela said that when you see a child in a store acting inappropriately, try to be understanding instead of passing judgement because that children may have autism and cannot help their behaviors. Having a child with autism is a 24-7 challenge. Unless you have a child with autism, said Angela, you really can’t understand the constant worry that something may happen to them because most have no fear.
“We will not lock our children up. They deserve to be out among the community,” said Angela, who hopes by people becoming informed it will help children and adults with autism find their place in the world.
There is no known single cause for autism, but it is generally accepted that it is caused by abnormalities in brain structure or function. Brain scans show differences in the shape and structure of the brain in children with autism versus neuro-typical children. Researchers are investigating a number of theories, including the link between heredity, genetics and medical problems. In many families, there appears to be a pattern of autism or related disabilities, further supporting a genetic basis to the disorder. While no one gene has been identified as causing autism, researchers are searching for irregular segments of genetic code that children with autism may have inherited. It also appears that some children are born with a susceptibility to autism, but researchers have not yet identified a single “trigger” that causes autism to develop.
The Autism Awareness Puzzle Ribbon is the most recognized symbol of the autism community in the world. Show your support for people with autism by wearing the Autism Awareness Puzzle Ribbon – as a pin on your shirt, a magnet on your car, a badge on your blog, or even your Facebook profile picture - and educate folks on the potential of people with autism.
Some information in this article was obtained by the Autism Society and TACA.