If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with autism or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), you likely have many questions and concerns that need to be addressed. There is much that is still unknown about this disability and even the experts don’t agree on all the possible causes or treatment options.
This article is not meant to replace the advice of your medical professional, but can provide a framework and overview for you to list your own questions. Take your list with you when you visit your doctor or healthcare providers, and conduct your own research as well. Learn all you can about autism, and keep in mind that every person is unique and will manifest the disorder in different ways. Learning to understand persons diagnosed with autism is the key to better relationships, emotional growth and individual development.
What is autism?
Autism spectrum disorder is a term used to describe developmental disabilities. Some scientists maintain that autism, or the potential for autism, is genetic. Others claim that autism symptoms increase in certain environments. A variety of genetic factors, in combination with environmental factors, may direct a child’s brain to develop differently and result in autistic behaviors.
Autism disabilities are based primarily in a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. Signs of autism typically appear during early childhood (before two years of age) and because of this, many of the studies currently being done are focused on early childhood development.
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A diagnosis of ASD now includes several conditions that used to be diagnosed separately: autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), and Asperger syndrome. Although experts don’t all agree, these conditions are thought to be related and are now all described under one mental health umbrella: autism spectrum disorder.
According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network is a group of programs to estimate the number of children with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities living in different areas of the United States. The ADDM Network sites all collect data using the same methods, which are modeled after CDC’s Metropolitan Atlanta Developmental Disabilities
Some of the goals are to study and compare how common autism is in different parts of the United States and to measure the impact this disability may have in families and communities. The CDC provides the funding for these studies.
The CDC estimates that in 2012, about 1 in 68 children had been diagnosed with autism or related disabilities. These figures are based on data collected from health and special education records of children in 11 communities and indicate that the diagnosis of this disability is on the rise. In 2007, CDC’s ADDM Network first reported that about 1 in 150 children had autism based on 2002 data from 14 communities.
It should be noted that the increase in the number of children diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorders may not be because more children are developing the disorder, but because education and awareness of the disability is increasing every year. In the past, some of these children with disabilities went undiagnosed or misdiagnosed.
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Common Misconceptions about Autism
As awareness about autism increases, so do the misconceptions about the condition and causes of autism. There are a number of respected healthcare publications that list common misconceptions about autism spectrum disorder, and some of them include the following statements:
“The child is just spoiled” – This is one of the blanket statements intended to explain why a child diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder might have a meltdown over a (seemingly) insignificant event. Most kids, perhaps all kids, often have a problem with abrupt change, and that’s why school classrooms have a schedule that children can expect. Kids diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder find change even more difficult and may lack the skills needed to communicate feelings effectively. Autism may happen with kids in families where siblings are not diagnosed with ASD and have already learned effective communication skills. Therapies designed to help children with disabilities communicate better can be very beneficial in these cases.
“Autism is caused by vaccines” – According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, vaccines, or ingredients in vaccines, are not the cause of autism. One vaccine ingredient that has been studied specifically is thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative used to prevent contamination of vials of vaccines. Research shows that thimerosal does not cause ASD. In fact, a 2004 scientific review concluded that the evidence favors rejection of a causal relationship between thimerosal–containing vaccines and autism. As with any type of medication, adverse reactions may occur when a child receives a vaccine. These reactions are rare, and experts agree that the benefits of vaccinations greatly outweigh the risks.
“Autism is forever” – This is untrue. Recent research has shown that children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder can make enough improvement after intensive early intervention to “test out” of the autism diagnosis. This is more evidence for the importance of addressing autism and related disabilities in early childhood when the first signs appear.