What is autism? Autism is a prevalent neurological condition that has been sweeping the American media by storm in recent years. The rate of its occurrence has been exploding, and this is the reason for much focus on this developmental disorder. Autism currently occurs at a rate of 1 in 150 in births, and this rate was approximately 1 in 1000 a generation ago. Currently, about 1.5 million Americans find themselves afflicted with autism; currently, autism is growing at a rate of ten to seventeen percent per year, and projections estimate this increase could mean that as many as 4 million Americans could suffer from its effects within the next ten years (What are Autism Spectrum Disorders?, 2008).
The definition of autism provided at the Autism Society of America’s website is as follows: “Autism is a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life and is the result of a neurological disorder that affects the normal functioning of the brain, impacting development in the areas of social interaction and communication skills” (2008).
I am someone who has worked with autistic children within Wisconsin’s Fox Valley for the last four years as a line therapist. The Fox Valley, among other regions, has one of the highest autism rates in the United States. No one really knows why, but many believe that the pollution from the paper industry is a large source of the problem. All conjecture aside, the region nonetheless is affected by a high rate of autism when compared to the rest of the nation.
What does autism look like? Autism, depending upon its severity, can look very different from individual to individual. Those that are severely autistic have very little awareness of the world around them, few, if any communicative abilities, and are dependent upon others for assistance with basic living tasks like eating, pottying, and other self care activities. Those that are high functioning can perform above, at, or slightly below grade level, academically speaking. They can make some friends, but people will often distance themselves from these children as they can be very intensely emotional over things that others would consider trivial, or these children may be so wound up in their own internal world that they rarely make attempts to communicate with those in the real world. Most often people think of autism as children who want to be alone all the time, but experience has shown that a more appropriate way to think of autism is that these children prefer fewer relationships in life, which is okay. As a general rule they do prefer more time alone than others, but with proper intervention, they can be taught how to interact with others, and very often it is found that they do enjoy some level of friendship with others. This paragraph may come off as condescending and negative, but these are the things that most people will first notice. This description is very general and by no means provides a comprehensive overview of autism. Autism, as noted previously, can look very different varying by the individual, and is most appropriately considered on an individual basis.
Society is typically taught to look at those who are different with skepticism and distrust. This is a common misconception and undermines the ability of this group of people to become successful human beings. A strengths-based perspective that looks at what these children can do well and how they can be integrated and mainstreamed into the rest of society is most beneficial because it helps these children to grow and move forward in life, which is what all humans desire to do. People with autism very often want to interact with others, but because of the autism, this is often something that they do not know how to do, but that they can do with intervention and practice.
A second misconception of autism is that children who are affected by it are very smart, or have a special ability. Out of the twenty or so children that I worked with over the previous four years, only one had a special ability, and he was a calendar calculator. 1 in 20 comes out to a ratio of five percent, but this is probably even a high number. Children with autism very often show uneven development. For example, they are typically much better than other children at math (often ahead of their grade level), but then they may be below grade level in terms of reading. The movie Rain Man, starring Dustin Hoffman as an autistic adult, has some elements based in reality and some in fantasy, just like any other movie. One realistic scene I can recall is when Dustin Hoffman stops in the middle of the street for a Don’t Walk sign, and yet cars are ready to come through and hit him! I have not experienced this situation specifically, but it is the type of behavior that is typical of the autistic individual. Another part that is more dramatized for the sake of entertainment is that Dustin Hoffman can count large quantities of items almost instantly, suggesting some sort of mental telepathy (somebody drops or spills matches, toothpicks, or cigarettes and he immediately counts them). This is most certainly an exaggeration; autistics are typically fairly skilled with numbers, but this mental telepathy has a basis in fantasy, whereas the skills of autistics have a logical and reasonable basis every time that I have seen.
The bottom line is that parents of these children just want them to live happy lives, just like any other parent. While autism is very mysterious to the mainstream United States, hopefully this article has helped to shed some light on the whole issue.
(2008). What are Autism Spectrum Disorders? Autism Society of America. Retrieved April 18, 2009 from http://www.autism-society.org/site/PageServer?pagename=about_whatis