It’s getting nice out, so you take your kids to the park to burn off some energy. You notice that one of the kids at the park doesn’t seem to want to play. He keeps his head down, and only wants to play in one particular area. Other kids try to engage him, but he isn’t talking.
You smile at the child’s caretaker and start a friendly conversation. Before long, the child begins to throw a fit.
The caretaker calmly and carefully guides the child towards an isolated place. As they pass by, she turns to you and remarks, “Seems this place is a bit overstimulating. He has autism, and is having trouble expressing himself right now.”
An incident like this can be common among those that are diagnosed with autism. April is Autism Awareness Month, so in this article we’re going to explore what that means, and how you can support those who are on this journey.
What is Autism?
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that can vary in type and severity. It’s believed to be a complex, neurologic condition that affects how the person interacts with others, communicates, behaves, and learns (1).
It’s reported that autism is one of the fastest growing disabilities in the US, affecting 1 in every 44 births (8). Symptoms typically begin to appear in early childhood, and can progress throughout their entire life.
While the spectrum is wide and can vary depending on the individual, some of the most consistent symptoms (3) among people diagnosed with autism are:
- Delayed communication/ability to speak
- Repetitive behaviors
- Avoiding eye contact
- Getting upset over change in routine
- Hypersensitive to touch, sounds, tastes, sights, or smells
- Trouble connecting with emotions of others
- Obsessive behaviors over toys, ideas, or routines
- Very behind in reaching mental growth milestones
While many of these appear to be negative, there are some fascinating strengths among those with autism, like:
- Being able to remember facts or details for extended periods of time
- Being an excellent art, science, music or math student
- Being strong auditory or visual learners
What Causes Autism?
No one really knows what causes autism. Some data shows that your chances of developing autism are increased if you have:
- Sibling(s) with ASD
- Older parents
- Low birth weight
Other controversial ideas behind the causes include vaccinations, diet, or increased diagnostic initiatives.
How is Autism Diagnosed?
Being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder can look a little different, depending on whether you’re a child or an adult. If you suspect someone has autism, here’s a glimpse of the diagnosis process (1).
Diagnosing children for autism is usually divided up into two phases. The first phase involves a standard wellness checkup screening. Your child’s pediatrician will evaluate your child’s behavior, interactions, and try to answer any questions you have. If autism is suspected, your child will be referred to a specialist.
The second phase is when a team of specialists observes your child. Assessing cognitive abilities, language skills, and age-appropriate activities are among some of the tests they will perform. In some cases, blood or hearing tests are done.
The collective results from combined tests can provide further insights and direction for both physicians and caretakers.
Adults can be a bit trickier to diagnose, as many of the behavioral symptoms overlap with other mental health disorders like ADHD and anxiety disorders.
Typically, adults who are suspected to have autism are referred by their healthcare provider to ASD specialists. Limited interests, repetitive behavior, changed social behaviors, and sensory issues are taken into account. Conversations with other caretakers can help provide additional insight.
While there is no current cure for autism, symptoms can be managed. Good quality of life is also prioritized, and there are multiple facets of achieving that goal.
- Diet: Much of today’s convenience foods lack adequate nutrition. Because of that, health concerns like obesity and diabetes are on the rise. Those diagnosed with autism can also be affected by eating disorders, preferring foods high in artificial flavors and low in nutrients. Encouraging nutrient-rich foods can help prevent toxin buildup, reduce oxidative stress and inflammation, which can affect severity of autistic symptoms (6).
- Herbs: Herbs like ginseng, poria mushroom, Japanese sweet flag, Chinese magnolia vine and licorice have been shown to greatly improve autistic symptoms (4).
- Therapy: psychological, behavior management, sensory integration, and educational interventions can help build valuable skill sets that will help children and adults (7).
- Medication: In some cases, medication may be necessary, especially in curbing areas of aggression, repetitive behavior, hyperactivity, or attention problems.
- Complementary alternative methods (CAM): Other modalities of treatment like acupuncture, massage, and music therapies seem to show promise in curbing extreme tendencies associated with having autism (5).
What You Can Do
The Autism Society of America has been actively campaigning since the 1970s. Two of their main goals emphasize:
- raising autism awareness throughout society
- ensure the best quality of life possible for those with autism
In recent months, the ASA has shifted their messaging from Autism Awareness Month to Autism Acceptance Month (2).
Why the switch? President of the ASA Christopher Banks notes, “…acceptance is often one of the biggest barriers to finding and developing a strong support system.”(2). Even for elements that are not quite understood, letting people know you’re there for them and that you care can make all the difference.
There are many ways you can support autism awareness, both in your community and worldwide.
- Ribbons: A colored ribbon has become iconic in health awareness issues. For April, blue is the color of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) awareness.
- Clothing: You can purchase and wear autism awareness shirts, hats, or handbags.
- Quotes: You can write quotes for autism awareness month and share them among friends, family, and social media
- Educate Yourself: There are so many educational resources available today. Books, dvds, podcasts, medical journals, and personal experience can speak volumes. Athletes, celebrities, authors and speakers, there are many different ways people have managed their autism over their lives.
Everyone develops at a certain pace, but some things raise more flags than others. Autism is one the fastest growing mental disabilities in the world, with no signs of slowing down.
The diagnostic process is being streamlined as more tests are coming out. Children as young as 2 can be diagnosed with autism, as well as many adults. The process for diagnosing is different for each age group, but specialists are involved in both processes.
Treatments are often a combination of multiple avenues. Focusing on a healthy diet, incorporating herbs, seeing counselors and therapists, and medication can all work together to provide the best quality of life possible.
April is Autism Awareness Month, or as it’s now being called Autism Acceptance Month. It’s a time to celebrate differences, educate ourselves, and help those who are currently on this journey.
How do you plan to get involved this April? Let us know!
✝✝This noted statement is based on independent research and is not necessarily the opinion of the author