Seven years ago, April 2nd was designated as “World Autism Awareness Day.” It is a time when organizations around the globe, fundraise on behalf of on-going research to better understand this condition, and advance its treatment. It is also a day devoted to celebrating breakthroughs and milestones surrounding this disorder.
Last week, the Center for Disease Control released a report that put the number of children afflicted with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in this country, at 1 in 68. That is 30% higher than previously suspected. But what exactly is Autism and why does this disorder occur?
In the early 1940’s two doctors, one at John Hopkins University, Leo Kanner, and Hans Asperger in Germany began observing children that displayed certain “emotional or social problems.” Kanner termed the condition autism (from the Greek word “autos,” meaning self), to describe the tendency to withdraw, which was noticeable in the children he was studying. Around the same time, Asperger’s syndrome, named after Hans Asperger, was introduced into our vocabulary to describe a similar disorder.
For decades autism and schizophrenia were thought to be related, and patients were given similar treatments (electric shock and a variety of medications). With time and research, new information about autism has emerged, improving understanding of the disorder and influencing how it is treated.
Today autism is known to be a developmental disorder that affects more boys than girls and is most often identified in Caucasian children than Black and Hispanic children. Levels of intellectual ability vary greatly among children with autism, ranging from severe intellectual challenges to average or above average intellectual ability.
Experts stress that early diagnosis is the most important weapon in managing this disorder and in finding the appropriate course of treatment. Some of the symptoms can manifest themselves as early as the first 2 to 3 months in a child’s development. Children diagnosed with autism will generally have:
- Social challenges
- Difficulties communicating
- A tendency toward repetitive behavior
- Associated medical conditions such as –
- — Genetic disorders
- — Gastrointestinal disorders
- — Seizure disorders
- — Sleep dysfunction
- — Sensory processing problems
- — Pica (eating things that are not food)
Autism is a life-long condition; there are no easy answers or cures. But early screening can lead to a child receiving treatment that’s right for them. There is not one course of treatment that can be applied across the board. With so much more known about autism now, treatment aims at helping children become more productive, social and independent. Much of this can be achieved through behavior management and modification, as well as the use of a variety of services – therapy sessions, social skills training, special teaching and learning services.
Perhaps one of the most positive faces of autism, and one that has changed how many people perceive autism and the autistic, is Temple Grandin. A professor, an animal behaviorist, an engineer and a best-selling author, Temple also happens to be autistic. She has shown the world that being wired differently does not mean that there is something wrong with you. Through her story and the HBO movie about her life (starring Claire Danes), she has helped raise awareness and has inspired better understanding of people with autism.
Because the way our brains operate is still a mystery, there is a lot more research to do before we fully comprehend what causes this condition.
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