As I mindlessly look through my iPad for nothing in particular (oh, the power of the Internet), I see a rather large object coming at me from my peripheral vision. I look up and see big brown eyes looking back at me. “Okay, give me a minute,” I tell him. The YouTube app on his iPad is open. I type in Sesame Street and look for the older videos. I see a vintage clip with Grover playing a waiter, much to the dismay of his customer, Mr. Johnson. I give him back his iPad and he smiles from ear to ear. Watching videos of old school shows on YouTube is a part of the daily ritual for my brother, Michael, who is autistic.
Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder, is defined as difficulties in social interaction, repetitive behaviors, and verbal and nonverbal communication. Autism was divided into sub-types such as Asperger Syndrome, autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder, and childhood disintegrative disorder. As of May 2013, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder, Fifth Edition — also known as DSM-5 — grouped all of the disorders under the umbrella term “Autism Spectrum Disorder.”
According to the US statistics recorded by the CDC, 1 in 68 children are on the autism spectrum, which has seen a ten-fold increase over the last 40 years. Autism is also more common among boys than girls, with 1 out of 42 boys and 1 out of 189 girls being diagnosed in the United States. Over 3 million people in the US and tens of millions worldwide are diagnosed as having autism.
Signs and symptoms of ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) to look out for, beginning as early as 2 to 3 years old:
- Avoids eye contact and wants to be alone.
- Doesn’t look at objects when another person points at them.
- Has trouble relating to others or doesn’t have an interest in other people at all.
- Has trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own feelings.
- Is very interested in people, but doesn’t know how to talk, play, or relate to them.
- Loses skills they once had, such as no longer saying words they were using.
- Has trouble adapting when a routine changes.
- Appears to be unaware when people talk to them, but responds to other sounds.
- Repeats actions over and over again.
- Prefers not to be held or cuddled, or they might cuddle only when they want to.
- Repetitive use of language and/or motor mannerisms (e.g. hand-flapping, twirling objects)
Throughout the years, research has shown that while there is no singular cause of autism, genetic, biological, and environmental factors play a role in its development. For example, people with chromosomal issues — such as tuberous sclerosis — and women who took a prescription drug with valproic acid (which is a chemical compound used as a mood stabilizing drug) during pregnancy were shown to have a greater risk of developing autism. By looking into these various factors, researchers hope to gain a better understanding of autism in order to help people and their families take the necessary measures to work through it.
While there is no known cure for autism, doctors believe that changes in diet and certain medication can help control symptoms. Early intervention is crucial for a person with autism. Set up appointments with a speech language pathologist (SLP) as well as with other professionals such as occupational therapists, pediatricians, and developmental specialists who are aware and knowledgeable about the different autism spectrums. Interaction with a speech pathologist is important since problems with communication and social skills are usually the first symptoms that appear.
A speech language pathologist can determine the language, communication, social skills, and behavioral needs of an autistic person. A SLP can help them to:
- Play and get along with others.
- Follow directions.
- Develop gestures through sign language to communicate with others.
- Ask for help.
- Write letters, words, and sentences.
- Look at books and tell stories.
Having the help of a SLP and other specialists is important in the development of a child with autism. In the end, remember that you and others close to the person with autism ultimately know what is best for him or her.
The use of electronic devices like an iPad can also play a key role in helping people with autism with their social and communicative skills. Apps such as Proloquo260, First Then Visual Schedule HD, and AutisMate can be set up based on their needs as well as their ages.
Thanks to the Internet and the numerous foundations based on autism research, people now have more access to resources that will help them find the right programs and treatment. This information wasn’t readily available to people like my family and me when my brother was younger. At the time, people were still learning exactly what autism was. As we gradually learned more about it and started to reach out to more and more people, we were able to find the right school for Michael to enroll in. Attending workshops and other events will also put you in touch with other families, and from there you can exchange information and create your own support system.
Below is a short list of the many organizations dedicated to autism research and resources:
- The Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism
- Autism Research Institute
- Young Adult Institute (YAI)
- The Color of Autism
- Autism Speaks
- Schrader Autism Foundation
- American Autism Association
When I was younger, I didn’t know exactly what autism was. I didn’t think Michael was weird or that something was wrong with him because he didn’t talk. Actually, Michael has been my teacher. He taught me to be more responsible and more patient, and he has been a pretty cool dance partner when we’ve watched music videos. When I would hear my mom tell people about him, I used to think she called Michael “artistic” instead of “autistic.” Thinking about it now, I should still use the word “artistic.” People with autism have a different way of viewing and experiencing the world around them. Then again, so does a painter. Like a painter, a person with autism creates the world as they imagine it. We might not be able to understand it, but that doesn’t make it wrong.