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April is Autism Awareness Month!

April is Autism Awareness Month!

parent and child holding puzzle pieces that form a heart for autism awareness

April is a month for rain, cool spring weather, and lovely pastels. While it’s easy to focus on the baby showers and engagement announcements this month, it’s also important to help shine a light on your child’s health. You may have thought putting them down for their afternoon nap would be your biggest struggle, but what if your precious baby is at risk for one of the most common childhood disorders?

What, exactly, is autism?

That’s a great question. Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), are both terms for a brain development disorder that is displayed by difficulties with social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors. Asperger’s syndrome, Rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, pervasive developmental disorders all fall under the umbrella of ASD. Autism typically becomes identifiable within the first three years of the child’s life, although it is a lifelong disorder.

While intellectual disabilities and difficulties in motor coordination may accompany autism, they are not characteristic of it. Children affected by autism are not mentally retarded, and some even excel in visual skills, math, music, and art. Each child affected by autism is entirely unique: roughly 40% have average to above average intellectual abilities and have the ability to live on their own and hold jobs. Only about 25% of individuals with ASD are nonverbal and have to learn to communicate in other ways.

What causes autism?

While the answer used to be uncertain, recent developments in science have discovered there is no single cause of autism. There are a number of rare, identified gene changes associated with autism, as well as over one hundred autism “risk” genes. Most cases of autism are a combination of these genes and environmental factors.

Autism is closely related to events before and shortly following the child’s birth. This doesn’t mean you need to wrap you and your baby in bubble wrap—although there are things to be cautious of:

  1. Advanced parental age (mom and dad)
  2. Illness during pregnancy
  3. Extreme cases of prematurity or other difficult births
  4. Low birth weight
  5. High level of exposure to pesticides and air pollution

Remember, these factors alone do not cause autism. These environmental factors combine with genes to create a higher level of risk.

So who has autism?

The statistics for autism have grown in just a few years: the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) quotes 1 in 88 American children are diagnosed per year, up from 1 in 110. Part of this increase can be contributed to increased awareness and better diagnosis, although autism does appear to be more common.

Studies have also shown that boys are four to five times more likely to have autism than girls. The CDC estimated 1 in 54 boys are diagnosed, compared to 1 in 252 girls. This is more than children affected by diabetes, AIDS, cancer, cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, and Down syndrome combined. With a disorder so common and so vast, there’s a good chance you know someone affected by autism, even indirectly.

And it can get expensive: roughly $60,000 per year just for care.  While there is no known cure for autism, there are available treatments. These treatments vary depending on the particular needs of each individual with autism, but frequently include therapy to work on communication and motor skills.

If you think that’s scary, consider this: only 26 states will cover autism under the Affordable Care Act. A total of 32 states have enacted an autism insurance reform law, leaving 18 offering no coverage whatsoever.

What to Look For:

Most signs of autism disorder make themselves present in early infancy. While you can have your child tested with the M-CHAT at your doctor, start by looking for signs. Self-screen your infant at home by looking for:

  1. Lack of smiles or joy following six months of age
  2. No communication of sounds or facial expressions by nine months of age
  3. No babbling  or gestures by twelve months of age
  4. No words by sixteen months
  5. No two-word phrases by twenty-four months
  6. Any loss of social skills or speech at any age

What can I do?

Whether or not you are directly affected by autism, there is something you can do. Autism Speaks is a national organization dedicated to raising awareness for autism and funds for the care of families affected by it. They have partnered with several corporations to expand their reach; as an example, their partnership with Alpha Xi Delta sorority encourages campuses nationwide to use blue light bulbs and events to raise awareness and donations.

In addition to accepting donations year-round, Autism Speaks also organizes Walks around the United States. Since April is dedicated to raising awareness, a calendar of daily events throughout the month is available on their website. Log on to find one near you!