April is Autism Awareness Month

Published 9:24 am Tuesday, April 5, 2016

By Sheri Willrodt

Director of Special Services, Austin Public Schools

Autism Spectrum Disorders is a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. The Center for Disease Control estimates that an average of one in 68 children in the U.S. is on the autism spectrum. This is about 3.5 million Americans. One percent of the world’s population lives with this disorder. The characteristic behaviors of autism spectrum disorder may be apparent in infancy (18 to 24 months), but they usually become clearer during early childhood (24 months to 6 years). As part of a well-baby or well-child visit, your child’s doctor should perform a “developmental screening,” asking specific questions about your baby’s progress. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development lists five behaviors that warrant further evaluation:

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•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 mean your child has autism. But because the disorder’s symptoms vary so widely, a child showing these behaviors should be evaluated by a multidisciplinary team. This team might include a neurologist, psychologist, developmental pediatrician, speech/language therapist, learning consultant or other professionals who are knowledgeable about autism.

There is no known single cause for autism spectrum disorder, 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 compared to in neurotypical children. Researchers do not know the exact cause of autism but are investigating a number of theories, including the links among heredity, genetics and medical problems. In many families, there appears to be a pattern of autism or related disabilities, further supporting the theory that the disorder has a genetic basis. While no one gene has been identified as causing autism, researchers are searching for irregular segments of genetic code that children with autism may have inherited.

It also appears that some children are born with a susceptibility to autism, but researchers have not yet identified a single “trigger” that causes autism to develop. Other researchers are investigating the possibility that under certain conditions, a cluster of unstable genes may interfere with brain development, resulting in autism. Still other researchers are investigating problems during pregnancy or delivery as well as environmental factors such as viral infections, metabolic imbalances and exposure to chemicals. In terms of genetic vulnerability, Autism tends to occur more frequently than expected among individuals who have certain medical conditions, including fragile X syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, congenital rubella syndrome and untreated phenylketonuria (PKU). Some harmful substances ingested during pregnancy also have been associated with an increased risk of autism.

About 2 percent of the student population in Austin Public Schools has been identified on the autism spectrum and in need of special education services. This is 13 percent of our total population of students receiving special education services. It should be noted that not all students who have a medical diagnosis of autism are in need of special education services, so the actual number of students on the autism spectrum is actually likely higher than this.

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 for everyone to educate the public about autism and issues within the autism community.

In Austin, Community Education is sponsoring a special event in April at the Hormel Historic Home. The Autism Awareness Night will take place on April 5. There will also be a Theory of Mind presentation by the renowned group Mixed Blood Theater on April 26 at 7 p.m. at the Hormel Historic Home, co-sponsored by the Peer Power Partners group from Austin High School and the Parenting Resource Center. Both of these events are excellent opportunities to highlight the impact of autism on our society.