Medical Update – April Is National Autism Awareness Month

2014-04-18_16-26-17Over the last several years, Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome have been frontrunners in discussions regarding health and education in children. So much so that since the 1970s, April has been deemed National Autism Awareness Month according to the Autism Society. This month is recognized in the United States as a special time to educate the general public about both Autism and issues in the Autism community (

Even as prevalent as this discussion has become, there are still many people who are not aware of Autism and Asperger’s, and all that they entail. Basically, Autism is more than a single, identifiable problem. According to, Autism is a general term for “a group of complex disorders of brain development . . . characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors.” In 2013, the DSM-V diagnostic manual merged all of these various disorders under one, more general diagnosis labeled “ASD” or “Autism Spectrum Disorder.” While the difference between Asperger’s and autism is both subtle and complicated, those with Asperger’s typically do not exhibit a delay in communication skills.

Statistics from Autism Speaks claim that ASD affects over 2 million people in the U.S. and tens of millions around the world. Findings published on their website indicates that roughly 1 in 68 children in the U.S. have been identified as being on the autism spectrum. This is “a ten-fold increase” over the last 40 years. Studies have also shown that autism is more common in boys than in girls, 1 in 42 as opposed to 1 in 189.

Now that you know what autism and Asperger’s are, you’re probably wondering what causes them. Unfortunately, the jury is still out on this question. Just a few years ago, most people would say that scientists have no idea. However, there is now better research as to the links to this spectrum of disorders might be. There is no “one single cause,” just as there is no “one single type of autism.” A few possible causes might include genetics, environment, and nutrition. There has also been great controversy over a possible link to vaccine administration.

Autism is generally diagnosed when children are still very young. Many times parents are the first to notice that something just doesn’t seem right and they can’t figure out what it is. Some of the more common signs or symptoms that children exhibit include but are not limited to social challenges, communication difficulties, and repetitive behaviors.

Social Challenges:
By nature most babies are very social and interactive with parents and caregivers. In contrast, most who develop autism show signs early on that there is an issue. Signs might include not responding to their name, lack of interest in people and failure to engage in babbling and “baby talk.” It is also common for individuals on the autism spectrum to misinterpret what others think or feel and gestures such as smiling or waving often convey no meaning. It is also difficult to see things from the perspective of another.

Communication Difficulties:
By the time most children are 3 years old, they are able to form a few words and/or simple sentences. They can convey like or dislike, respond to their names, and indicate desire for something. Children who are autistic or have Asperger’s syndrome are often delayed in these communication skills. Sometimes, infants will develop autism later but have previously demonstrated the ability to communicate. Others will have significant delays in learning to speak and communicate from a very young age. Many learn to communicate with pictures, sign language, word processing software, and speech generating devices.

Repetitive Behaviors:
Often, children on the autism spectrum will exhibit use of a set of repetitive behaviors, which is “one of the core symptoms of autism”. These repetitive behaviors may include but are not limited to such activities as “hand-flapping, rocking, jumping and twirling, arrangement and rearrangement of objects, and repetition of sounds, words, or phrases”. If someone attempts to stop or discourage these behaviors, children will often become very upset. Those children and adults on the autism spectrum often benefit from order and consistency on daily routines, with even minor changes to that routine deeply affecting behavior.

“Children with autism also exhibit a higher than average occurrence of genetic changes, GI (gastrointestinal) issues, seizures, sleep dysfunction, and sensory processing disorders.”

Throughout my lifetime, I’ve had the profound honor and privilege to work with multiple children and adults who are on the autism spectrum, some more so than others. These amazing people have given me the great gift of their presence in my life and I am forever grateful for it.

During the month of April, Alabama residents will be participating in the Walk for Autism in various cities. Athens will hold its Walk for Autism on Saturday, April 19th, helping solve the puzzle for Alabama families.
By: Rachel Clark, RN, BSN