The definition of what Autism means and looks like has dramatically changed over the past several decades. Before the 1990s, Autism was not viewed as a spectrum disorder. It mainly described individuals with severe symptoms as a result of poor parenting, more commonly known as the “refrigerator mother” theory. This meant that mothers were blamed for not providing maternal warmth to their child. It was not until the late 1970s when this theory was proven to have no merit when twin studies determined there was a genetic etiology to Autism. Although there is an identifiable genetic condition associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), there are many cases that do not have that marker and in those cases, the cause is still unknown.
Researchers began to track the rates of an Autism diagnosis in 2000, which has resulted in a steady increase of cases ever since. Reasons for the annual rise have been mainly due to the various changes in the diagnostic criteria, the development of more public awareness campaigns, and assessment tools. In 2020, the CDC recorded there are about 1 in 44 children that have been identified with ASD.
We must understand that the experience of Autism is very different for each individual on the spectrum. If you think about the term, “Neurodivergent,” this means that a person with ASD learns, understands, and processes information differently from someone that is not on the spectrum.
According to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual-5th Edition (DSM-V), the characteristics below are the hallmarks of diagnosing someone with ASD.
Characteristics of someone with ASD:
- Persistent deficits in social communication and social interactions as evidenced by an abnormal social approach and failure of normal back and forth conversation, reduced sharing of interests, emotions or affect, failure to initiate or respond to social interactions.
- Persistent deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction that include poor eye contact and body language, deficits in understanding and use of gestures, or a total lack of facial expressions and nonverbal communication.
- Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships.
- Restrictive, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities and/or hyper/hyposensitivity to sensory input.
These traits typically appear in early childhood between the ages of 18 months and 3 years. The range of these traits can include individuals who can comfortably hold a conversation or are entirely nonverbal. While some may be entirely independent to needing daily caretaking.
Since extensive clinical research has made us aware of the growing number of individuals having a diagnosis of ASD, it is now time to focus on accepting and embracing the information that has been brought to our attention. For example, the Autism Society in 2021 began to educate that although awareness is just as important in the identification and the ongoing development of supporting individuals with Autism, acceptance may be just as important for change to occur within our society for these individuals and their families.
Here are a few ways we can promote both awareness and acceptance for individuals with Autism:
- Learn the language – Is it more respectful to say, “My son has autism” or “My son is autistic”? Words matter. It is best to refer first to the person, then the condition.
- Reconsider what a “normal” social cue is – Making and maintaining strong eye contact is often difficult or impossible for those with Autism. Teach them to look at the middle of the person’s forehead or the tip of their nose to give the other person the impression of “direct eye contact”.
- Help develop social interactions with the app FlummoxandFriends. This game features quirky scientists who study the most perplexing scientific mystery of all: other people. Also available to watch on Youtube.
- Wear a puzzle ribbon and provide a ribbon to individuals you know who are on the Autism spectrum.
- Join Erin Carlson from Family Counseling Service and her team by participating in a walk for Autism at Soldier Field on October 20, 2022.
- Help change the lives of those who are impacted by Autism by donating to The Autism Society or by donating to Family Counseling Service‘s Autism Treatment & Support Program.
- Read books like the ones listed below to understand and learn more about what it means to have Autism.
Books to learn more and better understand what it means to have Autism:
- Middle School: The Stuff Nobody Tells You About by Haley Moss – Written by a female attorney who is Autistic, shares her life experiences as a teen with High-Functioning Autism.
- Beeper’s Obsession by Jasmine Pope – A children’s story that teaches about Autism and empathy.
- Living Outside the Box by Cort Rogers – Written by a 12-year-old boy with Autism.
As clinicians, we are among many who embrace neurodivergence and understand that these individuals need to be accepted for the individual they are. It is essential they we continue to promote a stronger awareness and acceptance of Autism’s neurodiversity in the present and for future generations to come.
Here at Family Counseling Service, we are honored to promote both Autism Awareness & Autism Acceptance and encourage those who may be in need of the services through our Autism Treatment & Support Program to reach out to us. We are here for you – Hope Starts Here.