April is National Autism Awareness Month. Although ‘awareness’ is important, so is inclusion, acceptance, understanding, respect, and advocacy.
What is Autism?
Autism (or Autism Spectrum Disorder) is a neurodevelopmental disorder. It presents with a range of impairments in social relatedness and communication. These are accompanied by restricted interests and repetitive mannerisms.
We identify signs of autism in early childhood. A diagnostic assessment provides recommendations for intervention. We recommend that these be individualized, family-focused, and incorporate a multidisciplinary team that readily appreciates a child’s unique strengths.
There is no cure, but research shows that early intervention programming improves outcomes for youth with the condition.
Some individuals are significantly impaired and require life-long support. That said, many people are able to live successful and independent lives. Unfortunately, however, the rates of unemployment, social isolation, and reported loneliness are elevated in adults with autism as are the rates of co-occurring mental health issues. College students with autism also encounter struggles and may require services that can be difficult to obtain or not readily offered. These numbers highlight the importance of acceptance throughout one’s life. Such acceptance can be protective against developing depression and lead to improved social functioning, individual empowerment, and lower levels of family stress.
How common is Autism?
The prevalence has risen quite remarkably over the past decade. Although it is not entirely clear as to what is driving this increase, we see more children receiving a diagnosis (1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls, according to 2014 numbers). Having evidence-based resources to support these children and their families is becoming increasingly important to meet needs locally and statewide.
I cannot understate the sense of urgency in obtaining and allocating resources to support families.
What are some local initiatives and resources?
At the Vermont Center for Children, Youth, & Families at the UVM Medical Center, we work diligently to provide evidence-based diagnostic assessments for children suspected of having an autism spectrum disorder.
We hope to expand our program to also engage families in a wide array of wellness supports and treatments to address social, communication, and behavioral concerns. Similar to non-autistic populations, children, teens, and adults with autism also benefit from mindfulness, parent-training strategies, participation in regular exercise and team sports, reading fiction, healthy eating, and playing music. Creatively offering such supports will hopefully foster acceptance, promote wellness, dispel myths, help others to recognize diversity in the abilities of those with autism, and altogether foster positive developmental outcomes and relationships.
Taking a family-based approach to intervention with autistic individuals is critical as research has clearly demonstrated how siblings and family members can be uniquely affected and uniquely situated to offer support.
Take meaningful action not only in April, but all year round. Consider volunteering for a local organization, mentor a youth with autism, talk to legislators about resource allocation, or donate to an organization that supports those affected by autism.
Above all, talk to people with autism. Get to know them and their families.
For more information, visit:
- The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry’s Autism Resource Center
- The Autism Self Advocacy Network
- The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism
- The New York Times Patient Voices: Autism
- The Vermont Family Network
- The Hanen Centre: Helping young children developing language, social, and literacy skills
- The Vermont Autism Task Force: Autism Awareness Day 2018 (April 11)
: Jeremiah Dickerson, MD, is a child psychiatrist at the University of Vermont Medical Center, where he is the director of the Autism Assessment Clinic. He is an assistant professor at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM .