Becoming aware of autism creates better acceptance

Did you know that April is Autism Awareness Month? Though it may not affect you or your family personally, it’s good to have an understanding of what autism is. That way, we can better recognize, accept and appreciate those living with autism.

What is autism?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that affects the brain, which affects learning and development. It is often not diagnosed until a child is 2 or 3 years old, but signs can often be seen between 9 and 12 months of age.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 68 children has ASD. ASD has been shown to be more prevalent in boys than in girls.

“Autism is easier to diagnose today than it was 10 or 20 years ago because there is a lot more we know about it. However, families and primary care physicians need to be aware of the signs so that children get referred for diagnosis,” said Dr. Susan Caldecott-Johnson, pediatric neurodevelopmental physician at OSF HealthCare Children’s Hospital of Illinois.

Signs of autism:

  • Problems with social interaction and communication
  • Poor eye contact
  • Unable to connect with people
  • Delayed speech
  • Repeats words, phrases or movements

“Children with autism don’t usually develop typical play skills, but tend to migrate towards repetitive things and routine,” Dr. Caldecott-Johnson said. “Instead of rolling a toy car along the ground, the child might turn the car over and enjoy watching the wheels spin for long periods of time.”

How is autism treated?

Because ASD varies from child to child, no two treatment plans are exactly alike. However, the most successful treatment programs are those that start as early as possible.

Types of therapies:

  • Occupational therapy
  • Speech therapy
  • Applied Behavior Analysis therapy
  • Appropriate school setting
  • Medication

“Getting children in the right environment to learn those social and play skills they haven’t naturally acquired is important,” Dr. Caldecott-Johnson said. “Autism is a social interaction disorder, relating to the environment. So, the earlier children get appropriate types of intensive intervention, the more functional they will be as adults.”

What causes autism?

There have been many speculations about what causes autism and how autism can be prevented, but it’s still not 100 percent clear. However, there is a strong link to certain genes a child is born with.

“It’s a multifactorial problem with a very significant genetic component,” Dr. Caldecott-Johnson said. “At the same time, there are other factors because not everyone with the same abnormality in their genes looks the same. So there is a great deal of variability with what genetics might show.”

As we continue to raise awareness about autism throughout this month, it’s important to be sensitive and accepting to those affected by ASD and their families.

“We cannot possibly understand what it’s like to walk in the shoes of a child or adult with ASD and their families,” Dr. Caldecott-Johnson said. “But we can certainly take time to recognize their journey, be inclusive and show support to them.”