April is National Autism Awareness Month

April is National Autism Awareness Month. The Autism Society defines autism as, “a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life and affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others.” The national symbol for Autism Awareness is a ribbon made out of puzzle pieces, signifying the complexity of the autism spectrum. The different colors and shapes represent the diversity of the people and families living with the condition.

Statistics say autism currently affects around 1 million Americans. According to the Center for Disease Control, the number of U.S. cases of autism has grown to 1 in 88 children, a 78% increase since a 2007 report and 23% increase since the last report in 2009. Another interesting fact – studies show that boys are three to four times more likely to develop autism than girls. To try and put these numbers in perspective, Autism Speaks states that autism affects more children than those affected by diabetes, AIDS, cancer, Cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy and Down syndrome, combined! Health officials attribute the increase largely to more awareness of early signs and better diagnosis of cases through various screenings and evaluations.

Symptoms almost always start before a child is 3 years old. Diagnosing autism is done by observing and evaluating behaviors. This generally involves a team of professionals including a pediatrician, a psychologist, a speech and language pathologist and an occupational therapist. There is no blood or biologic test used to make a diagnosis. Some signs of autism include: a delay in talking or not speaking at all, not responding to his or her own name, repeatitive and overused behaviors, unusual sensitivity to light sound and touch, and/or becoming very upset when routines change. These are just a handful of possible symptoms.

There are no two people alike with autism. Individuals can have many different kinds of behaviors, from mild to severe. Many children with autism prefer to play alone and do not make eye contact with other people. Kids with autism may also have other problems including: below normal intelligence, depression, anxiety and epilepsy.

Autism tends to run in families, which has led some experts to believe it may be something that you inherit. Scientists are trying to find out exactly which genes may be responsible for passing down autism in families. Other studies are looking at whether autism can be caused by other medical problems or by something in your child’s surroundings. Some think that childhood vaccines cause autism, however, studies have not proven this to be true. It is important that your child receives all necessary childhood vaccines. They help keep him/her from getting serious diseases that can cause harm or even death.

There is no cure for autism – but there are interventions that involve behavioral training and/or medication. Behavioral training rewards good behavior to teach children social skills and ways to better communicate as well as how to help themselves as they grow older. With early treatment, alot of children with autism are able to learn to interact and communicate better with others.  Treatment can include speech, physical and occupational therapy, parent and family involvement and a team of teachers.

Exactly what type of treatment your child needs depends on the symptoms, which are different for each child and may change over time. Because people with autism are so different, something that helps one person may not help another.  It is important to work with a group of people who have your child’s best interests at heart in order for them to receive the best education possible.

The goal of National Autism Awareness Month is to increase awareness of the disorder and promote early intervention and appropriate treatments in the hopes that people with autism and their families will lead full, complete lives.

The author of this blog is Divine Home Care RN Case Manager for our Litchfield branch, Crystal Lawver.