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Chuck, my child was recently diagnosed with autism. Sadly, like so many others, we mistook a serious disorder for behavioral problems. Can you please raise some awareness about autism spectrum disorders? – J.N., Medford, Ore.
April is Autism Awareness Month, and April 2 was the sixth annual World Autism Awareness Day.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines autism spectrum disorders, or ASDs, as “a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.” Examples include autism, Asperger’s syndrome and pervasive developmental disorders not otherwise specified. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association explained a few of the challenges of ASDs this way:
- “Communication: Not speaking or very limited speech … difficulty expressing basic wants and needs … repeating what is said (echolalia)”
- “Social skills: Poor eye contact with people or objects … poor play skills … (or) problems making friends … disliking being touched or held”
- “Reacting to the world around them: Rocking, hand flapping or … self-stimulating movements … … problems dealing with changes in routine … using objects in unusual ways.”
In March, the National Center for Health Statistics issued a report titled “Changes in Prevalence of Parent-Reported Autism Spectrum Disorder in School-Aged U.S. Children: 2007 to 2011-2012.” The main findings of the report included:
- One in 50 school-aged children have autism (compared with last year’s report by the CDC of 1 in 88).
- The prevalence of parent-reported ASDs among children ages 6 to 17 was 2 percent in 2011-12, compared with 1.2 percent in 2007.
- The change in prevalence estimates was greatest for boys and for adolescents ages 14-17. In 2011-12, school-aged boys were more than four times as likely as school-aged girls to have an ASD.
- Children who were first diagnosed in or after 2008 were likelier to have milder ASDs than those diagnosed in or before 2007
- Much of the increase in the prevalence estimates from 2007-2012 for school-aged children was the result of diagnoses of children with previously unrecognized ASDs.
Experts say early intervention is critical when it comes to ASDs. According to the CDC, symptoms can be identified when a child is as young as 18 months, which is why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends screening all children by the time they’re 24 months old. But many children with ASDs – especially those with only limited or mild speech impairments – are not diagnosed until they are of school age, when parents or teachers notice they’re struggling to interact with peers.
Stats are stats, but the reality of autism plays out every day within American families. ASDs have no prejudice; they affect those across socio-economic lines. I recently met a minister in California who has both a son and a daughter with autism. And I just read about a doctor and her therapist husband who live in Pittsburgh and have three sons with autism.
As one can imagine, there are a whole host of unique stresses – in and outside the home – for parents of children with ASDs. That is why one of the best things that we can do for such parents is not to judge their homes, parenting and children too quickly. Don’t assume unruliness always equates to parental deficiency.
Mostly, don’t be afraid to reach out, encourage a parent or help a child with autism like the Chili’s waitress who recently inspired us all by “fixing” a broken hamburger for a little girl with autism who was upset that it was cut in half.
For parents of children with ASDs, my greatest encouragement is not to give up. There’s hope with treatments, including behavioral, occupational and speech therapy.
For example, Autism Speaks reported on a study in the journal Pediatrics in which scientists at the Center for Autism and Related Disorders examined 535 children, ages 8-17, diagnosed with autism and with severe language delays at age 4. The researchers found that most of these children went on to acquire language skills. Forty-seven percent became fluent speakers, and 70 percent spoke in simple phrases.
Remember most of all that there’s nothing better for any child’s heart and mind than good ol’ unconditional love, encouragement and parental presence. Such care reminds me of one of the managers in our KickStart Kids nonprofit foundation, Pamela Owens, who together with her husband, Arlyn, fight to balance their super-busy work-family schedules and give their best to their son with autism, Preston, and his sister, Allyson.
Recently, Pam wrote an honest and insightful article about their ASD journey on Austin Moms Blog.
She said, “The solution for me has been to be still.”
In short, in all the busyness of life, Pam is putting her family first, and that includes being there for her son – to be present for his journey, to look daily into his eyes and connect, to listen to him though he doesn’t speak full sentences, to help him to realize that hugging and snuggling are safe and to remind him daily that he is uniquely created and gifted by God.
As I wrote in January, which is National Birth Defects Prevention Month, we ought to love and cherish all of our children, no matter what their strengths or disabilities are. Indeed, who’s to say that their disabilities won’t turn out to be their greatest strengths? (Consider again the global impact that Nick Vujicic, who has no arms and no legs, is having with the success of his organization, Life Without Limbs.)
Temple Grandin – a professor at Colorado State University, a best-selling author and an autism activist – was diagnosed with autism in 1952 at age 5. In 2010, she was listed in the Time 100 list of the most influential people in the world, in the “Heroes” category.
Perhaps one of Dr. Grandin’s greatest teachings is the one with the fewest words – a reminder we and our children all need: “I am different, not less.”
Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.