World Autism Awareness Day - Autism

National Autism Awareness Month: What You Should Know

April is National Autism Awareness Month, a time dedicated to promoting understanding and acceptance of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). While the word “autism” was first coined in 1911, medical and scientific research and our comprehension of the condition have made significant strides, particularly in the late 20th century. In the last few decades, we have seen remarkable progress and advancements in our knowledge of how to care for and support those with autism, giving us hope for a more inclusive future.

With ASD estimated to affect 1 in every 36 children in the United States, there is still much to learn about autism, including its causes, improvements to early diagnosis and screening, and effective ways we can broaden our efforts to support those with the disorder so they can achieve their full potential.

What is Autism?

Autism is a lifelong developmental disorder caused by differences in the brain that impact how people interact with the world. It is considered a spectrum disorder because there is a wide array of symptoms, with each individual having their own unique combination of indicators impacting cognitive abilities, communication, and behavior. Typically, people with ASD may have different ways of learning, moving, speaking, thinking, or concentrating, which can make life challenging without support.

Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), common ASD characteristics are often present before or by the age of 3 and may include:

Communication & Interaction

  • Avoids or does not keep eye contact
  • Not responding to name by 9 months of age
  • Uses few or no gestures by the age of 1
  • Lack of sharing or showing interest by 18 months of age
  • Does not notice when others are hurt or upset by age 2

Restricted or Repetitive Behaviors

  • Repeatedly says words and phrases
  • Gets frustrated with minor changes
  • Has obsessive interests
  • Has to follow a set routine
  • Flaps hands, rocks body, or spins in circles

Anyone can be diagnosed with ASD, as it affects all nationalities, races, religions, and genders. However, boys are five times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls. Nevertheless, recent research indicates that there may be even more differentiation in symptoms between boys and girls, which leads to many females being diagnosed later in life.

While there is no medical detection test or cure for ASD, early screening and identification can improve a child’s outcomes well into adulthood.

How is Autism Diagnosed?

Currently, there is no known specific cause of autism. Most scientists believe multiple causes of ASD act together to alter the brain’s development, with genetics being one factor. Most importantly, we do know that the behavior of a child’s parents before, during, and after pregnancy does not cause ASD. Additionally, there have been extensive studies and research done that have found no links between autism and vaccinations.

Diagnosing ASD can be challenging because there are no tests, like a blood test, that can indicate the disorder. Autism screenings are the most common way to diagnose autism. These screenings are conducted by a physician who examines a child’s developmental history and observations of their behaviors to make a diagnosis. Children are generally screened between 18 and 24 months of age when autism is believed to be detected earliest. However, it can take time for children to reach a final diagnosis, and it’s possible not to be diagnosed until adulthood.

While early detection can have positive effects on a child’s outcome, it’s important to note that ASD does not worsen with age, and it is never too late to seek support. Early intervention matters because it can help people with ASD gain specialized, customized support that helps them learn new skills, mechanisms, and techniques that assist with communication and socialization challenges, as well as stimulate brain development.

Future of Autism

There is more to be done to understand and support individuals with ASD, especially as they reach adulthood. It is estimated that the average annual cost of autism support is $60,000, with lifetime costs reaching $2.4 million. Fortunately, improvements in technology and advances in research will hopefully boost the quality of life for those with ASD. Additionally, more employers are acknowledging the advantages of having ASD and other neurodivergent employees as part of their workforce. Companies are investing in training programs dedicated to cultivating their career and professional development.

If you have concerns about your child’s development, speaking to a pediatrician can be a good starting point to discuss any signs or behaviors you have noticed. A pediatrician can provide expert guidance and help you determine if any developmental issues need to be addressed. If you are looking for resources or assistance, Florida Health has a list of programs available throughout the state, including  The Center for Autism & Related Disabilities at the University of South Florida. Another potential resource is Full Spectrum ABA, an organization that provides life-changing therapy for children and young adults with special needs throughout Florida.

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