Saturday, April 5, 2014

A(pril) Is for Autism

In order to highlight the growing need for concern and awareness about autism, the Autism Society has been celebrating National Autism Awareness Month since the 1970s.  The United States recognizes April as a special opportunity to educate the public about autism and issues within the autism community.*

The characteristic behaviors of autism spectrum disorder may or may not be apparent in infancy (18 to 24 months), but usually become obvious during early childhood (24 months to 6 years).  The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) lists five behaviors that warrant further evaluation:

  • Does not babble or coo by 12 months
  • Does not gesture (point, wave, grasp) by 12 months
  • Does not say single words by 16 months
  • Does not say two-word phrases on his or her own by 24 months
  • Has any loss of any language or social skill at any age
Any of these five "red flags" does not guarantee autism, but because the symptoms of the disorder vary so much, a child showing these behaviors should have further evaluations by a multidisciplinary team which may include a neurologist, psychologist, developmental pediatrician, speech/language therapist, learning consultant, or other professionals knowledgeable about autism.

At first glance, some persons with autism may appear to have an intellectual disability, a sensory integration disorder, or problems with hearing or vision.  To complicate matters further, these conditions can co-occur with autism.  However, it is important to distinguish autism from other conditions, since an accurate diagnosis and early identification can provide the basis for building an appropriate and effective treatment and education program.

A brief observation in a single setting cannot present a true picture of an individual's abilities and behaviors.  Parental (and caregiver) and/or teachers' input and developmental history are important components of making an accurate diagnosis.

There is no known single cause of autism, but it is generally accepted that it is caused by abnormalities in brain structure or function.  Brain scans show differences in the shape and structure of the brain in children with autism versus in neurotypical children.  Some researchers are investigating a number of theories, including the links among heredity, genetics, and medical problems.  Other researchers are looking at problems during pregnancy and delivery as well as environmental factors such as viral infections, metabolic imbalances, and exposure to environmental chemicals.

A few facts and statistics about autism that everyone should know:

  • 1% of the population of children in the U.S. ages 3-17 have an autism spectrum disorder
  • The prevalence is estimated at 1 in 68 births
  • 1 to 1.5 million Americans live with an autism spectrum disorder
  • Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability with a 1,148% growth rate
  • $60 billion is spent each year on autism-related services
  • 60% of those costs are in adult services
  • The cost of lifelong care can be reduced by 2/3 with early diagnosis and intervention
  • In 10 years, the annual cost will have grown to $200-400 billion
  • The cost of autism over an entire lifespan is $3.2 million dollars per person
  • Only 56% of students with autism finish high school
  • The average per-pupil expenditure for educating a child with autism was estimated to be over $18,000 in 2000.  This is nearly three times the expenditure for a typically educated student
  • The unemployment rate for people with disabilities was at 14% in 2000, compared with 9% for people without disability.  Additionally, at the same time, only 21% of all adults with disabilities participated in the labor force as compared with 69% of the non-disabled population

*All information presented here is courtesy of the Autism Society.

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