Autism Awareness Month 2020

Autism, now known in the medical community as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), estimates that 1 in 54 children in the United States are diagnosed each year. Interestingly enough, clinicians first discovered autism in late 1944, and are still in pursuit of trying to answer the perplexing unknowns of autism such as pinpointing the specific causes, analyzing concordance rates between twins, and attempting to answer why 1 in 34 males are diagnosed but only 1 in 144 females identify with autism. The technical definition of ASD according to the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders classifies autism as a neurodevelopmental disorder that is suggestive to be caused by a coalescence of genetic and environmental factors. Estimates from 2016 propose that there can be anywhere between 200 to 400 genes involved in autism spectrum disorder. However, pediatricians, geneticists, and researchers still have no single cause of ASD. In fact, they take the stance that since autism is a spectrum itself, there must be a spectrum of etiologies as well.

For quite a long time, autism has been thought to be caused by vaccines; however, current findings suggest this is not the case. Autism exists on a spectrum, hence the name. In other words, just as any other neurodevelopmental disorder, ASD ranges in level of severity from mild to moderate to severe based on social communication and repetitive behaviors criterion. Additionally, language and intellectual impairment specifiers can accompany ASD but are not necessarily needed in order to make a proper diagnosis. To illustrate clearly, autism presents itself in a number of ways. For an example, a 10-year-old boy who suffers several acute epileptic seizures a day and uses an iPad as his only source of communication receives the same diagnosis as a 43-year-old female who is known for her astute mathematical work and is a recipient of a Nobel prize in Economic Sciences.

Although autism has been researched since the eighties, the media still continues to inadvertently give a skewed picture of what ASD actually is. Autism is portrayed as an irreversible disease caused by dysfunctional pregnancies and vaccinations, and although there may be no “cure” for autism yet, ASD is not a disease, but rather an alternate way of seeing and experiencing life. Ethan Lisi, a twenty-year-old born with Autism is a mouthpiece to the media and medical community for ASD striving to change the impression of autism. In his Ted Talk, Lisi beautifully articulates, “Our brains function differently from most people’s brains, think of it like comparing an Xbox and a PlayStation. They’re both highly capable consoles with different programming.”

woman on tablet

It is imperative to realize that each and every human being is unique and that the same applies for those with autism spectrum disorder. The reality is that there is still a lot to be discovered about autism and its nature, but a good start would be implementing more autistic-friendly environments. Ones where loud noises are kept to a minimum and bright lights are dimmed, as these can be very overwhelming for those with ASD. Bringing light to the stereotypes that surround autism spectrum disorder and building a world more conducive and sensitive to autistic needs is at the heart of Autism Awareness Month. 

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