By Ernst Lamothe Jr.
Prevalence and awareness don’t always go hand in hand. More than 3.5 million Americans, including one in 68 children, live with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, the condition is still unfamiliar to many.
The American Academy of Pediatrics in 2007 recommended that all children be screened for ASD at their 18-month checkups, and then again at either 24 or 30 months of age.
“It’s essential that people understand autism spectrum disorder because there are people who are affected every day of their lives that you likely come in contact with,” said physician Michelle Hartley-McAndrew, clinical assistant professor of pediatrics and neurology at the University at Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “Whether you interact with people at the grocery store, work or at school, the better you understand what individuals with autism are experiencing, the better interaction it will be.”
McAndrew offered five facts about autism because she believes many people still have too many stereotypes about the condition.
1. You can’t get it through vaccines
Because of a research study by physician Andrew Wakefield in the United Kingdom — that has since been debunked — there are still people who believe vaccination contributes to autism.
Some research states that autism tends to run in families and many environmental factors are being examined as possible contributing factors or “causes” of autism. Changes in certain genes increase the risk that a child will develop autism. If a parent carries one or more of these gene changes, they may get passed to a child. However, many research studies show that vaccination is not the cause.
“What we do know for sure is that there is an incredible reduction in preventable diseases for those children who do get vaccinated,” said said McAndrew. “We will always recommend to parents that their children get their vaccinations. The American Academy of Pediatrics has compiled a comprehensive list of research regarding autism and vaccine safety that can be found on www.healthychildren.org.”
2. Behavior is often ways of communication
Parents and other caregivers that encounter someone who has autism should understand that they may have difficulty with expressing themselves through language. Because of this, behavior is a key component for communication. Behavioral changes can indicate a need to express something. They might engage in aggression or atypical behavior because there is an element in their surroundings that overwhelms them.”
“Parents have to work on interpreting the behavior before they can put together a plan of action,” said McAndrew. “Often parents have to be like a detective to determine the needs of their child or cause of the behavior before it will change. Behaviors may be more common if the child is hungry, tired, sick or overwhelmed. Understanding that behavior is communication can prompt someone to look behind the behavior at the source.”
3. Sensory sensitivity
Ordinary smells and sights that most people don’t notice can be somewhat painful and irritating to someone with autism. Even a crowded area might be too hectic, which can cause someone to prefer not only quiet but isolation. It may cause individuals to feel defensive.
“For example, if there are too many people in a store causing commotion or too much light, it can be irritating to a person with autism spectrum disorder,” said McAndrew. “It can be all too overwhelming. Even certain sounds or fabrics may be extremely bothersome.”
4. Visual learners
Those who have autism tend to be more visual learners. Often the best way to teach them is to show them what is expected through pictures, demonstrations and gestures instead of simply telling them what to do. For children on the autism spectrum, walking over to a seat and physically sitting down as a demonstration could work better than just telling them to sit down.
“Also, consistency and repetition are helpful,” said McAndrew. “When things are on a visual picture schedule that they can refer back to, they can anticipate change or see what is expected of them and it eases their stress. It makes learning and communicating a little easier.”
5. Range of strength and challenges.
As the term spectrum would suggest, there are symptoms that will occur along a continuum. Some people with autism spectrum disorder can perform excellently at a traditional school, while others may need a little more help.
“Dr. Stephen Shore who has autism once said ‘if you have met one person with autism then you have met one person with autism’ meaning that’s why we call it a spectrum because there is no one type of person with autism.”