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One in 88 American children has an autism spectrum disorder. The category is so broad that it can be hard to understand. Autism, Asperger's and other pervasive developmental delays are difficult to diagnose and even harder to treat because all people - even the most 'normal' person you know - exhibits to some degree one or more of the characteristics associated with autism.
We call it a spectrum because no two cases are alike. Each person has their own unique abilities and challenges. But there are some core characteristics to watch for:
1. Problems with social interactions. This could be difficulty relating to others and their needs, the inability to understand humor (usually marked by inappropriate laughter), or avoidance of groups and group activities.
2. Problems communicating with others. While this usually shows up as difficulty having a conversation, it can also be a lack of speech or the repetition of words and phrases instead of responsive conversation. Sometimes there is a lack of words to express themselves and screaming is the only way they have to get their point across.
3. Restricted interests. This isn't loving all things cars, it is actually obcessing over only things cars. Substitute anything else for "cars" in that sentence, and you get the idea.
4. Repetitive behavoir and mannerisms. These are the most physical manifestations of autism. Behaviors commonly seen in autistic people are clapping, finger flicking, rocking, dipping and swaying. Most of the time, the person doesn't even realize they're doing any of these things.
I have a ten year old son with autism. He flicks his fingers, obcesses about cars, screams alot and gets easily frustrated with his inability to communicate with the rest of us. He knows who we are, he shows us love in ways he understands (hugs), and screams at us when we don't understand what he wants.
He takes medication to help him control his frustration (which can quickly lead to agression), but there's no medication available to treat the causes of that frustration. All we can do is love him anyway and pray.
There's a research facility in Connecticut where a new drug is under study as I write this. It is my hope that this drug, or another like it, will prove effective and give people with autism some relief.
While there is no drug treatment, many children respond well to intervention and therapy when the disorder is caught early. My son has not responded nearly as well as we'd hoped nor as poorly as we'd feared, but we haven't given up yet. We've fought for him and his well-being for seven years since his diagnosis and we'll continue to fight for him.
I can't stress enough the importance of knowing the signs and having children tested and evaluated if there are any concerns at all. It doesn't matter how minor the concern seems, every question should be asked and the child's doctor should take all of your questions seriously.
My first pediatrician didn't take my concerns seriously when my son was nine months old and I felt something wasn't right. It would be two more years before I found a pediatrician who would take those concerns seriously and another six months beyond that to get a diagnosis. That diagnosis involved blood testing, MRI, EKG and a few trips to a neurologist along with some evaluations by qualified therapists. It was worth every minute and every mile.
Whether you're a parent, a caregiver, a church member or just someone who goes grocery shopping, chances are good you'll meet an autistic person along the way. Knowing something about the challenges they face puts a new light on their behavior. They aren't avoiding eye contact because they're rude; they aren't clapping to annoy others; and their screaming doesn't mean I'm a horrible mother who can't handle her child.