What is Autism?
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental disorder that typically appears in early childhood. It is characterized by a certain set of behaviors that affects people in various ways and varying degrees in regards to interaction with others and ability to communicate.
According to the ADDM autism prevalence report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in every 68 births in the United States is affected by ASD. Children can be evaluated and diagnosed with the disorder as early as age 2, however most are not diagnosed until after four years of age.
While many disagree with putting labels on children, especially at such a young age, the proper diagnosis and treatment of conditions like Autism and ADHD opens opportunities for the nation to learn how to serve families and children affected by these disabilities. That is, while you may see it as a label, I see it as another justification for scientists and researchers to continue testing theories and finding ways to help our children live somewhat of a happy, healthy life… in spite of their disabilities.
The Autism Society estimates that the costs for autism in the United States, per year, is almost $90 billion dollars. That’s ten zeros, folks. These funds go toward medical research, insurance costs, uncovered medical expenses, Medicaid wavers, educational expenses, counseling and other therapies, housing, caregiver expenses, transportation, and employment.
A study conducted by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the London School of Economics found that expenses for people with autism alone range from $1.4 million to $2.4 million for those who may also have intellectual disability. That is, the lifetime cost of caring for JUST ONE person with autism can top $2.4 million.
These costs include everything from medical treatment, school support, therapies, employment accommodations, and lost wages from the patient’s and caregiver’s struggles to maintain employment. The biggest contributors to such a high price tag, according to the study, include special education costs, housing during adulthood, and indirect costs such as lost productivity. It is believed that early interventions that are specifically aimed at helping adults with autism and approaches early on in may help reduce the need for long-term care.
Like ADHD, there is no cure and people don’t outgrow it, but symptoms are treatable. Individuals with Autism may exhibit any combination of symptoms while not necessarily all of them. Some symptoms may be more intense than others. Early diagnosis (labeling) and intervention lead to much more improved outcomes as individuals with ASD reach adulthood. For this reason, the CDC encourages that we know the signs and act early. The symptoms of autism can worsen without early intervention.
Symptoms of Autism
- No babbling or cooing by 12 months
- No gesturing by 12 months (e.g., pointing, waving, grasping, etc.)
- No single words said by 16 months
- No two-word phrases by 24 months
- Any loss of language or social skill at any age
- Difficulty making and/or maintaining eye contact
- Difficulty maintaining conversation
- Lack of interest in peer relationships
- Delays in spoken language
- Repetitive use of language mannerisms (e.g., hissing, growling, etc.)
- Repetitive use of motor mannerisms (e.g., rocking, tapping, twirling objects, flapping hands, etc.)
- Difficulty with executive functioning
- Difficulty with reasoning and planning
- Intense interests
- Lack of spontaneous or make-believe play
- Sensory sensitivities
- Poor motor skills
- Persistent fixation on specific parts of objects
ASD is very complex and treatment options for the condition are not equal. There is no “one size fits all” approach to treating Autism, just like there isn’t for ADHD. The symptoms vary from person to person and in varying degrees of intensity, so the treatment plan must be aimed at the strengths and weaknesses of each individual person. It is important to remember that there is no cure, the treatments are aimed at addressing many of the challenges and symptoms associated with the condition. The overall goal of any treatment option for Autism is to improve the quality of life for that individual.
In order to select the appropriate treatment approach, the family should first consult with the child’s medical team. This may include a developmental pediatrician, neurologist, psychologist, speech therapist, learning consultant, occupational therapist, and any other professional knowledgeable on ASD. The family and medical team can then try a combination of approaches in regards to education, vocational training, community living options, and support systems until they find what works most effectively for that individual.
Cause of Autism
While a single known cause of ASD has not been identified, it has been commonly accepted that abnormalities in brain structure or function are the cause of the disorder. Differences in the brain’s shape or function have been identified in brain scans of patients with Autism. Researchers are investigating links to heredity, medical problems, and genetics.
Some theories being researched hypothesize that problems during pregnancy and/or delivery or other environmental factors may be related. These might include exposure to chemicals, viral infections, or metabolic imbalances. In fact, a new epidemiological study from Sweden came out in December 2015 finding that “exposure to sex hormones early in life may be important to the development of autism in both sexes” which means that there is a higher risk of developing ASD for children born to mothers with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). I’m thinking this debunks the myths about anxiety levels and bad parenting cause these “behavioral” problems in children.
Other medical conditions that may create a high risk, based on the frequency of autism development related to these conditions, are:
- Congenital Rubella Syndrome
- Fragile X Syndrome
- Tuberous Sclerosis
- Untreated Phenylketonuria (PKU)
Genetic theories are based on a pattern of Autism or other related disabilities running in families. Irregular segments of genetic code are being sought after by researchers, though no single gene has been identified. Some believe that it is related to an unstable cluster of genes may be interfering with brain development under certain conditions.
It is so easy to get ADHD diagnosed, that children are often receiving the incorrect diagnosis and being ineffectively treated and/or medicated without further evaluation. Autism is one of a very long list of medical conditions that has symptoms which mimic ADHD. The big problem with this is that children with Autism Spectrum Disorders need early intervention. Treatment needs to start right away in order to help them function more effectively. Treating them for ADHD instead may help some of the symptoms, but it hinders medical evaluations that could allow medical professionals to make an accurate diagnosis and delay much needed intervention.
Early intervention is key for Autistic children to learn how to thrive in a society that very much misunderstands them, in educational and social environments which don’t naturally accommodate their needs. With an accurate diagnosis and early intervention, many autistic people grow up to be very successful individuals. There have been many:
- 50 Tyson (Rapper and Autism Activist)
- Albert Einstein
- Alexis Wineman (Miss Montana)
- Alonzo Clemons (Clay Sculptor)
- Amadeus Mozart
- Amanda Baggs (Autism Advocate)
- Andy Warholl
- Bhumi Jensen
- Birger Sellin (Author)
- Caiseal Mor (Author, Musician, Artist)
- Charles Darwin
- Christopher Knowles (Poet)
- Courtney Love (Frontwoman of Hole)
- Daniel Tammet (British Autistic Savant)
- Daryl Hannah (Actress)
- Derek Paravicini (Blind Musician)
- Dylan Scott Pierce (Wildlife Illustrator)
- Elisabeth Hughes (Author)
- Emily Dickinson
- Evgeny Kissin (Russian Pianist)
- Gary Numan (Singer and Songwriter)
- Hans Christian Andersen
- Henriett Seth F. (Autistic Savant, Poet, Writer and Artist)
- Hikari Oe (Japanese Composer)
- Isaac Newton
- James Durbin (American Idol Front-runner)
- James Hobley (British Dancer)
- James Henry Pullen (British Carpenter)
- Jason McElwain (Basketball Player)
- Jessica-Jane Applegate (Paralympic Swimmer)
- Jim Sinclair (Autism Rights Activist)
- Jonathan Jayne (American Idol Contestant)
- Jonathan Lerman (American Artist)
- Leslie Lemke (Blind American Musician)
- Luca Brecel (Belgian Professional Snooker Player)
- Lucy Blackman (Educated Author)
- Marty Balin (Singer and Songwriter)
- Matthew Laborteaux (Actor)
- Matt Savage (Jazz Prodigy)
- Michelle Dawson (Autism Researcher and Rights Activist)
- Peter Tork (Musician)
- Richard Wawro (Scottish Artist)
- Stephen Wiltshire (Architectural Artist)
- Temple Grandin (Systems Designer and Author)
- Thristan Mendoz (Marimba Prodigy)
- Thomas Jefferson
- Tito Mukhopadhyay (Author, Poet, Philopher)
- Todd Hodgetts (Paralympic Shot Putter)
- Tony DeBlois (Blind American Musician)
- Vincent Philip D’Onofrio (Actor, Director, Film Producer, Writer, Singer)
Clearly, with accurate diagnosis and effective treatment, autistic individuals can bring an abundance of creativity, compassion, and brilliance to society. While it’s easy to get caught up in blaming parents for their child’s disabilities, criticizing labels and other methods of raising awareness, and theorizing about healthcare conspiracies, these people are part of our everyday lives and we owe them understanding at the very least. They give us the same in the best ways they know how.
Yes, there is an epidemic of misdiagnoses that causes annoyance and frustration surrounding children with ADHD, Autism, and many other conditions and disabilities. The problem is that the very labels that society criticizes us for using are the ones that lead to our children getting the help that they desperately need. Ignorance is bliss. It’s easy to judge when it’s not your problem. How about we educate ourselves and raise some awareness instead? Be part of the solution, not the problem.