Look for spring colors to emerge this month – not only underfoot but also on car bumpers, jacket lapels and Facebook pages – in the form of the multi-hued “autism awareness” ribbon.
The ribbon – whose puzzle pattern is meant to reflect the mystery and complexity of autism – will be on full display throughout April, which is Autism Awareness Month.
So, why should we be aware of autism? For a couple of reasons. First, a large (and growing) population of American families is affected by the developmental disability. And the earlier in life children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the sooner they can be paired with life-altering behavioral therapies and services.
It’s called a spectrum disorder because the diagnosis covers a group of complex brain development disorders. These disorders show up in children, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. Autistic disorder, Rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) and Asperger syndrome are all names you may have heard included on the autism spectrum. New medical guidelines coming in May 2013 will merge all of these into a single diagnosis of ASD.
As many as 1.5 million Americans live with ASD. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate one in every 88 children born in the United States will be identified on the spectrum.
And the numbers keep climbing:
- A report released last week from the National Center for Health Statistics suggests one in 50 children has some level of autism.
- The Autism Society calls ASD the fastest-growing development disability, with an annual growth rate of 10 to 17 percent.
- One CDC study reported the number of ASD diagnoses between 1987 and 2007 grew by more than 1,000 percent.
- The number of adults with autism is expected to rise 625 percent by the year 2030.
- The number of school-age students with an ASD is forecasted to rise by 133 percent in 2030.
There is no medical test that can diagnose autism. Instead, autism-specific behavioral evaluations are used to determine if a child has the disorder. Parents are often the first to notice that their child is showing unusual behavior.
What is it, exactly? Autism is a neurological condition that affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. It’s five times more common in boys (one in 54) than girls (one in 252), according to the CDC.
The first signs typically appear during a child’s first three years and include:
- No big smiles or other warm, joyful expressions by 6 months of age;
- No back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles or other facial expressions by 9 months;
- No babbling or cooing by 12 months;
- No gestures (pointing, waving or grasping) by 12 months;
- No spoken words by 16 months;
- No two-word phrases by 24 months;
- Any loss of speech, babbling or social skills at any age.
What causes autism?
There is no one cause of autism. Researchers continue to investigate several theories, including the link between heredity, genetics and medical problems. Although a growing number of families suspect a link between autism and childhood vaccinations – an estimated one in 10 parents refuse or delay vaccines for their children for this reason – a new study scheduled for publication in The Journal of Pediatrics concludes there is no association between receiving “too many vaccines too soon” and autism, according to the Autism Society.
Although a child will not “outgrow” autism, studies show early diagnosis and intervention can lead to significantly improved outcomes.
Unfortunately, doctors unfamiliar with diagnosing autism sometimes dismiss parent concerns, delaying diagnosis and the opportunity for early intervention. Parents should trust their instincts and ask their family doctor to refer their child to a specialist for diagnosis. And that’s what Autism Awareness Month is all about, informing families and physicians so children with ASD get the help they need as early as possible.
To read more on this topic, check out:
Management of Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders by the American Academy of Pediatrics
What is Autism? by AutismSpeaks.org