What you see depends mainly on what you look for. – John Lubbock
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new prevalence rates for autism last week. It is now estimated that 1 in 68 children are identified with autism spectrum disorders; 1 in 42 boys, almost five times more common than girls. This is roughly a 30 percent increase over previous estimates reported in 2012. These statistics come from a 2010 study done across multiple communities throughout the United States, looking at children age 8.
Taken at face value, these statistics can be quite alarming. However, a look deeper into the study shows that in addition to a higher percentage of children being affected by autism, almost half of the children studied have an average or above average intellectual ability (an IQ above 85) as compared to one third of children a decade ago. This tells me that even though autism is more common than ever, that we are doing a better job of helping those kids overcome the once overpowering limitations autism imposes. As the parent of a child with autism, I find this extremely encouraging.
While it’s true that some people with autism are impacted in such a way that they cannot verbally communicate and some struggle with impulse control, wandering, and sleeplessness, that is not the case for all people with autism. It truly is a spectrum of disorders, affecting each individual differently. And even for those who can’t physically speak, that doesn’t mean they don’t have anything to say or that they cannot communicate. Some of the most profound pieces I have read about autism and living with the disorder have been written by non-verbal people living with the condition. Therapy, communication and understanding have helped countless individuals deal with impulse control and find other ways to deal with the overwhelming stimulus of the world around them. Educating parents and caregivers to know and understand why a person with autism has a tendency to wander has helped keep the wanderers safe and close.
According to a press release from the CDC (which can be seen at http://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2014/p0327-autism-spectrum-disorder.html) the report also shows most children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are diagnosed after age 4, even though ASD can be diagnosed as early as age 2. Healthy People 2020, the nation’s 10-year health objective, strives to increase the proportion of young children with an ASD and other developmental delays who are screened, evaluated, and enrolled in early intervention services in a timely manner.
Early intervention is absolutely key in helping a child with autism not only cope with the disorder, but to thrive despite it. Yes, I said thrive. Our son has autism. He was also diagnosed with a gross motor delay, and expressive/receptive language disorder, but he will outrun me nearly every time we go out. While he has some difficulties with conversation, he has overcome a great deal of the limitations which once made communication nearly impossible. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago, his sister helped him call me when she couldn’t get him to get off the bus once they had gotten to school. The conversation went like this
Me: Hi, Ben. What’s the matter?
Ben: Hi, Mommy. I don’t no want to go to school today.
Me: Oh. You know what, Buddy? I don’t really want to go to work today, either. So, how about you do what you need to do and I’ll do what I need to do, and then I’ll come pick you up when we’re both done, and we can go home together after school?
Ben: (sigh) Okay.
Me: I love you, Benton.
Ben: I love you, too, Mom. Bye.
This, from a boy who couldn’t carry on a conversation two years ago, much less on the telephone, without being able to see me! He told me what was wrong. He didn’t get what he wanted, but he understood this is the way it was going to be, and he accepted it. This is huge.
So, while I agree that yes, I had to catch my breath when I first heard of the increased diagnosis rate of autism, I realize that this is not the end of the world. I think that as we research more and learn more and know more about the vastly different ways autism can affect people, and we, as parents, are more aware of what to look for and have our children screened earlier and more often, professionals are having an easier time of identifying autism earlier. The earlier a concern is addressed, the more likely it can be overcome.
If your child is not meeting developmental milestones such as taking a first step, smiling for the first time, making eye contact, responding to his name, or waving “bye-bye”, or if you’re just not sure, check with your pediatrician. If you are still concerned, contact your early intervention agency (birth-3) or your local school district for screening. Help is out there. You are not alone.
Autism can be looked at as a big, ugly monster that steals our children and their ability to communicate and thrive. But, not if we don’t let it.
I choose to look at autism as that part of my son which makes him uniquely him. It has given him the ability to recall moments from years ago in the greatest detail that I feel like I am back in that moment as he replays it for me. He can sing a song, word for word, after only hearing it a few times. He can artistically recreate nearly any logo he sees with such great accuracy, he includes details so small, we have to go back to look at the original because we missed them. Because of his fascination with recreating pictures, logos and words, to the degree that he can draw nearly any font he lays eye on, and because he has spent literally hours of his life happily drawing, he has the neatest handwriting in our entire family, at the age of 6.
And his memory is absolutely amazing. I sing a song to our youngest at bedtime each night. It’s our thing. She asks for the song I sang her as a baby and I comply. Ben hears this each night, but doesn’t ask for it and often doesn’t want it, so I don’t get those moments with him any longer.
One night last week, he asked for the good night song. I soaked in every moment of bonding with our boy while I sang this old song to him. When I was done, my heart so full that he asked for that time with me, he looked at me and said, “No, Mommy, the time to sleep song.”
I was stumped! This is the song I had sung to all five of our children every night as I rocked them to sleep. Trust me, I know this song! This is the good night song. So, I asked him if he could sing it.
“Ok.” He sat up in bed, steadied himself, and began to serenade me with a song that played at the end of each video lesson we did with our preschool group at church when he was three. He sang me the entire song, never missing a beat, never missing a single word from a song that we had not heard for nearly three years. And my heart was so full, it leaked out my eyes.
Yes, autism can be scary, but it brings some amazing blessings into our lives. This is what I choose to look for.