Written by: Bob Conlon, LCSW, CEAP
On April 2, World Autism Day, thousands of schools, skyscrapers, landmarks, businesses, and homes worldwide will turn on blue lights. The international campaign was begun by Autism Speaks after World Autism Day was adopted by the United Nations in 2007 to shine a bright light on autism as a growing global health priority. Individuals across the world also wear blue to mark the day.
The goals of World Autism Day are to:
- Spread awareness and understanding of autism
- Celebrate and honor the unique talents and skills of people with autism
- Bring attention to the needs of the millions of individuals and families affected by autism
Just a few of the almost 20,000 sites that participate in this event are the Freedom Tower, The Great Sphinx and Pyramids of Giza, the Suez Canal, Madison Square Garden, and Gillette Stadium.
The term ASD or Autism Spectrum Disorders is a relatively new diagnosis currently used in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, or DSM-5. The idea was to combine a number of previous neurodevelopmental disorders such as Mild Mental Retardation or Asperger’s Syndrome into a continuum of issues that can be rated based on the need for support. This decision was not without controversy and the number of adults and children diagnosed under these new criteria ballooned.
With the prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) at an all-time high, parents and caregivers should be alert to the signs and symptoms of this developmental disorder that can be diagnosed in the first years of life. Early diagnosis and intervention have been shown to make a significant difference in the outcomes of children with ASD.
ASD is characterized by a wide range of symptoms including:
- Problems with social interaction and communication
- Repetitive behaviors such as rocking, spinning, hand flapping and toe walking
- Significant difficulty with change in daily routine or ritual, which may result in severe tantrums
As they grow, children should exhibit the following developmental milestones:
- Six months: Smiling with warm, joyful facial expressions; making good eye contact and engaging easily with caregivers
- Six to 12 months: Responding to their own name; making babbling sounds like baba, gaga, mama, dada
- 12 months: Making back and forth gestures such as reaching for parents to pick them up, waving, pointing with the index finger at things they want
- 18 – 24 months: Saying many words, even if they are not pronounced correctly; pointing to body parts when asked, “Where is your tummy? Feet?”
- 24 months: Saying their own two-word phrases, not just repeating what others say.
If a child fails to exhibit any of the aforementioned milestones, or if he loses speech or social skills at any age, families should consult with their pediatrician or primary care physician about an evaluation for ASD.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that well-child checkups include developmental screening for autism spectrum disorders at 9, 18, and 24 to 30 months with specific screening for autism spectrum disorders at eighteen and twenty-four months. If a child is diagnosed with ASD, therapy is directed at communication, language, and social interaction. In addition to speech/language and occupational therapy, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), a conditioning behavior therapy targeting specific behaviors, is the gold standard treatment for autism spectrum disorders.
While the EAP may not be the first step in the process, it may be helpful to assist parents, siblings and other family members with the emotional consequences of an ASD diagnosis. The good news is that, when we talk about a “spectrum disorder,” everyone is on the spectrum somewhere! Normalizing this can be helpful with older children, adolescents or adults who are at different points of the spectrum such as diagnosed with or experiencing other communication, language or social delays.
Remember to join the world and wear blue on April 2 in support of Autism Awareness.