By Sheila Gosney
Worldwide Autism Awareness Day is internationally recognized on April 2 every year, while the month of April is designated as Autism Awareness Month. Autism Awareness began in the 1970’s by The Autism Society and was adopted by Congress in 1984. The multi-colored autism awareness ribbon was released in 1999 which strengthened the cause for awareness of autism.
But what drives the passion that leads neighbors and friends to turn their porch lights on with blue light bulbs? What stirs people to march down city streets with giant autism ribbons painted on posters? Usually it is a child or grandchild afflicted with autism, and often it is a career choice of an individual devoted to helping others.
What exactly is autism?
Autism is a spectrum disorder; which means it is different in range or severity, as well as the collection of traits and challenges which present in each person’s autism. Autism traits include: social problems, sensory issues, repetitive behaviors, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, speech disorder, learning delays, behavioral problems, as well as immune dysfunction that often leads to health problems.
One person’s autism may be quite obvious, especially when he or she makes autistic noises or paces while flapping their hands. While another person’s autism may be less obvious because they suffer more with social problems or sensory issues. There’s a common saying, “When you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve only met one person with autism.” So, we can learn a lot from each individual with autism, but we can never compare them. Each one is like a wonderful book we must learn to read slowly and patiently.
The prevalence of autism
Autism typically appears between ages 2-3, while some parents see signs earlier, and other cases manifest later in childhood. According to 2017 statistics, the CDC estimates 1 in 68 children are diagnosed with autism. Approximately 100 new cases of autism are diagnosed every day. The prevalence of autism in boys is 1 in 42, while in girls it is 1 in 189. An estimated one third of people with autism remain non-verbal, and one third have an intellectual disability. A number of people with autism develop medical and mental issues, including: gastrointestinal disorders, seizures, sleep issues, anxiety, phobias, and attention deficit disorder (ADHD).
Early intervention is key
Interventions for autism include: speech therapy, occupational therapy, music therapy, Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy, nutritional interventions and treatments through biomedical and functional medicine doctors, etc. Because intervention is better in early stages, it is good that parents be aware of possible signs of autism.
If your baby or toddler doesn’t:
- Make eye contact, such as looking at you when being fed or smiling when being smiled at
- Respond to his or her name, or to the sound of a familiar voice
- Follow objects visually or follow your gesture when you point things out
- Point or wave goodbye, or use other gestures to communicate
- Make noises to get your attention
- Initiate or respond to cuddling or reach out to be picked up
- Imitate your movements and facial expressions
- Play with other people or share interest and enjoyment
- Notice or care if you hurt yourself or experience discomfort
These developmental red flags could be a sign of autism:
By 6 months: No big smiles or other warm, joyful expressions
By 9 months: No back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles, or other facial expressions
By 12 months: Lack of response to name
By 12 months: No babbling or “baby talk”
By 12 months: No back-and-forth gestures, such as pointing, showing, reaching, or waving
By 16 months: No spoken words
By 24 months: No meaningful two-word phrases that don’t involve imitating or repeating
Autism in older children
Signs of autism in older kids are somewhat different. They include: poor eye contact, facial expressions that don’t match what he/she is saying, doesn’t pick up on other people’s demeanor or tone, robot-like demeanor, reacts to sights, smells, textures and sounds. Rigidity in regard to food preferences, sometimes eating the same foods every day. Autism may cause abnormal posture or gait, social problems, inflexibility and insistence on sameness, and unusual attachments to common items, such as car keys, rubber bands, grocery store receipts, etc. Autistic children may have narrow topics of interest and perseverate over same topics, finding a way to turn every conversation back to their chosen topic. Noticeable signs of autism are repetitive body movements which are often called “stimming” and these manifest in spinning one’s self or objects, hand-flapping, rocking, pacing, etc.
What do you do if you suspect autism?
Call your pediatrician immediately for an evaluation. It helps to create a list of everything concerning you, so you don’t forget anything. If your child cannot tolerate a lengthy doctor visit, ask if part of the consultation can be done on the phone before the appointment. If the consultation doesn’t satisfy you, don’t be afraid to say so. Ask for a second opinion or a return visit after some time has passed.
Getting a diagnosis can be daunting. In our area we have access to the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders in Columbia, which takes referrals from local doctors. The Thompson Center can be reached at 573-884-6052. But another great resource is the Judevine Center for Autism which now has a hub in Hannibal, Missouri. Judevine Center for Autism is able to help concerned parents get direction toward diagnosis and therapies. Judevine of Hannibal can be reached at 573-629-1519. You can find them online at https://www.judevine.org/hannibal-hub/.
Stay tuned! Next week I’ll share autism from a local perspective.