Autism Awareness Month Week 1
I’m not sure if you realize but the numbers of children diagnosed with Autism has risen over the past ten years. In 2010 1 in 125 children were diagnosed and now in 2020 it is 1 in 59. The Autism Society of America is the nation’s largest and oldest grassroots autism organization and is proud to celebrate National Autism Awareness month in April every year.
This organization encourages communities to build better awareness around the signs, symptoms and realities of autism. This year their campaign is beautifully called Celebrate Differences and focuses on providing information and resources for communities to be more aware of autism in your area, how to promote acceptance and how to include those on the spectrum in everyday life.
My son is on the spectrum and is a high functioning Aspergers teen. What does this really mean?
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM-5) doctors categorize autism by different levels; I, II and III to two of the domains of symptoms.
Level I: Requiring Support A person with level I autism may have difficulties in social situations.
Level I is the least severe autism diagnosis. People in this category have social difficulties that require some support, guidance and/or training.
They can find it hard to initiate conversations with others and may respond in appropriately or lose interest quickly. This can make it challenging to create lasting friendships without the right guidance and support.
People with level I autism may also show odd behaviors and not be flexible with change. It can be very difficult for them to cope with changes in their day to day routines, situations or structure around how they accomplish a certain task. They may have difficulties with transitions and new environments. They may need extra help organizing and planning their day and week.
My son falls into this category. With some help from amazing Special Ed teachers, an incredible Speech Therapist and his ABA consultant to the incredible team at his high school, my son has created some amazing friendships and has learned how to initiate and hold deep conversations as well as create jokes and make people smile.
Level II: Requiring substantial support Those in this category need more support than those with a Level I diagnosis. They will have more severe social deficits that make holding a conversation very challenging.
Even with support, they may struggle to communicate coherently and are more likely to respond inappropriately to others. They may speak in short sentences or only discuss very specific topics.
Those with a Level II diagnosis may also have issues with nonverbal communication and might display behaviors like avoiding eye contact, facing away from anyone they communicate with or look around them.
They may have inflexible behaviors that can make day to day functions difficult. They do not cope well with changes and any change in their routine can cause them significant distress. They may lash out, scream, hit, throw things or punch.
Level III: Requiring very substantial support Level III diagnosis is the most severe autism diagnosis. Those with a level III will have significant impairments in their verbal and nonverbal communication. Some may not be able to talk at all.
Many will avoid interactions with others or while interacting it will be in a very limited way if they must respond to others or communicate a need.
Their behaviors are highly inflexible and very repetitive. Rocking, hitting themselves, shaking their hands or repeating words or making noises may be prevalent. They may react very strongly to any changes in their routine and become highly distressed in a situation that requires them to alter their focus or task. Change is extremely difficult for anyone with a Level III diagnosis.
Health care providers will also assign a severity score to anyone with a diagnosis.
One severity score is for impairment in social function, while a second severity score is for restrictive, repetitive behaviors. The levels the doctor assigns depend on the severity of the symptoms.
A correct autism diagnosis that includes the levels of severity can help doctors and other specialists work with the individual to provide the right treatment and support.
The symptoms of autism are both social and behavioral and can include the following:
Social Symptoms: • Avoiding eye contact • Discussing their interests in great detail with an innate knowing of the subject • Difficult initiating or keeping a conversation • Responding inappropriately to others • Facial expressions that do not match the context of communication-inability to know social cues • Difficulty understanding other people’s perspectives
Behavioral Symptoms: • Distancing themselves from others • Developing a high level of skill in certain areas; math, art or history • Repetitive behaviors; rocking, repeating words, tapping a pen • Being obsessed in specific topics • An inability to cope with changes in their routine • Becoming preoccupied with one area of an object; wheels on a car, numbers in an equation • Having problems sleeping; going to sleep and staying asleep • Being very sensitive to sounds, stimulation or crowded areas
Some may have balance, coordination and motor issues. They may not be able to do certain sports and may gravitate to singular sports like tennis, kayaking, wrestling, rock climbing or swimming instead of group sports like soccer, basketball, football or baseball.
Diagnosis can be challenging because it is a spectrum disorder. The symptoms can range from mild to severe and the types of symptoms will differ between individuals. My son had very mild symptoms, but we knew something was “off”, others are very detectable and there isn’t a question about the diagnosis, just what level of severity.
Early diagnosis is essential to start proper treatment as soon as possible to provide a better quality of life moving into young adulthood and adulthood. Most signs are detectable by the time the child is 2-3 years old; however, some may start showing signs at an older age. For example, my son showed signs of being gifted at 2 and then in first grade his teacher came to me and said she thought he had Asperger's because her son had it and my son was showing the same exact learning curve. That was when I started doing my research and looking for help.
There are two stages to diagnosing:
Developmental Checkups: in their routine checkups the doctor will assess a child for signs of autism around 18-24 months. They will discuss their behavior, development, family medical history and ask for your input on what you think may be “off” in your child.
Additional Evaluation: If a doctor suspects that a child has autism they will arrange for additional checks by a team of healthcare professionals. Child psychiatrists, speech therapists and language pathologists may meet with your child for review and testing. These specialists will assess language and cognitive skills as well as social cues and may also give motor skill testing to rule out other conditions.
Behavioral therapy is a great form of treatment for those with an autism disorder. This is a lifetime condition, but treatment, therapy and creating coping strategies can help anyone manage it.
There is no medication specific for autism; however, some doctors my diagnose other conditions in autistic people where a medication may help with the following: • Aggression • Obsessive behavior • Irritability • Hyperactivity • Mood changes • Anxiety • Attention Deficits • Impulsivity
Specialized therapists can focus on particular areas that your child may find challenging. For example, we had a speech therapist work with my son in Middle School when we realized he didn’t know social cues and thought kids were bullying him. She worked with him to recognize verbal and non-verbal cues in people so he felt comfortable in all types of situations that happened in school. This has helped him create some incredible friendships, but also gave him a voice to advocate for himself, as well as be able to live independently when he graduates next year.
Some forms of therapy may involve the whole family to learn how to better understand the child, how they think and react to certain situations. This way the family as a whole can learn ways to constructively provide support for each other.
Those on the spectrum have a variety of resources to help them and their families;
These resources will be made available on social media for sharing as well as on www.autismawarenessmonth.org for download.
There are some pretty famous people who have been diagnosed with Autism who have gone on and created some incredible things and have inspired many.
History’s 30 Most Inspiring People on the Autism Spectrum:
• Dan Aykroyd – Comedic Actor • Hans Christian Andersen – Children’s Author • Benjamin Banneker – African American almanac author, surveyor, naturalist, and farmer • Susan Boyle – Singer • Tim Burton – Movie Director • Lewis Carroll – Author of “Alice in Wonderland” • Henry Cavendish – Scientist • Charles Darwin – Naturalist, Geologist, and Biologist • Emily Dickinson – Poet • Paul Dirac – Physicist • Albert Einstein – Scientist & Mathematician • Bobby Fischer – Chess Grandmaster • Bill Gates – Co-founder of the Microsoft Corporation • Temple Grandin – Animal Scientist • Daryl Hannah – Actress & Environmental Activist • Thomas Jefferson – Early American Politician • Steve Jobs – Former CEO of Apple • James Joyce – Author of “Ulysses” • Alfred Kinsey – Sexologist & Biologist • Stanley Kubrick – Film Director • Barbara McClintock – Scientist and Cytogeneticist • Michelangelo – Sculptor, Painter, Architect, Poet • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Classical Composer • Sir Isaac Newton – Mathematician, Astronomer, & Physicist • Jerry Seinfeld – Comedian • Satoshi Tajiri – Creator of Nintendo’s Pokémon • Nikola Tesla – Inventor • Andy Warhol – Artist • Ludwig Wittgenstein – Philosopher • William Butler Yeats – Poet