By Josh Samson
Chevy Chase, Md. — In this new age of social media and instant gratification, survival depends on the ability to process information quickly and efficiently.
But this rapidly changing world is hard for children diagnosed with autism, a neuro-developmental disorder that typically results in impairment of social interaction, communication, structural brain formation and an increase in repetitive behavior.
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), one out of 91 people ages 3 to 17 are diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in the United States.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also shows a 58.3 percent increase in prevalence of ASDs among 8-year-old kids from 2002 to 2006.
This drastic increase has changed how those with autism are viewed. Once thought of as mentally retarded, now they are accepted as functional people with special needs.
“I think it’s much more accepted because of exposure, because public figures are talking about it and because more people are talking about it,” said Dr. Peter Daniolos, an adolescent and pediatric psychiatrist who is a prominent figure in autism treatment. “I think there is a huge shift in public opinion and public exposure.”
Exposure doesn’t always imply understanding. According to NCBI, symptoms of autism range from mild speech and language impairment to severe seizures and a disregard for danger that exponentially increases the risk of death.
The wide range of symptoms and drastic differences between people with ASD often makes it difficult for doctors to understand and work with autistic people.
“Each child is so unique that it’s hard to figure out who they are,” Daniolos said. “Many people have unknown capabilities that you have to tap into.”
This individuality can also make it easier for family members to find a connection and build a relationship with their autistic child.
“One of the suggestions to help autistic children is more contact with ‘normal’ children,” Daniolos said, forming air quotes with his hands to signal society’s definition of what’s normal. “All you have to do is learn what’s cool about that person and move on from there.”
What has made people most aware about the prevalence of autism is celebrity backing and outreach. Not only does this make headlines in the media but the spotlight inspires advocacy.
Celebrities, including Academy Award-winning actresses Kate Winslet and Gwyneth Paltrow, have donated to Autism Speaks, a non-profit organization for research, prevention and awareness efforts for children with autism.
Model Jenny McCarthy, Grammy Award-winning singer Toni Braxton and actor Sylvester Stallone all have autistic children, prompting them to help fund research for autism and increase public awareness about the disorder.
According to Daniolos, this type of exposure has been “only positive,” but other physicians say that not enough has been done to help offer a solution.
“(Pop culture) is essential in increasing awareness, sensitivity and advocacy for this group of patients,” psychiatrist Sheila Sontag said after a meeting of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Society of Greater Washington at Chevy Chase’s Columbia Country Club. “We need high-quality reporting.”
Though more information and more funding could never hurt, it is the support of educators that helps prepare autistic children to make their own way in society.
Take Ivymount School in Bethesda, Md. Since 2006, it has incorporated social learning into a thorough educational experience for children with Asperger’s Syndrome, a type of ASD where people have the same difficulties in social interaction but have normal linguistic capabilities.
According to its website, the Blue Ribbon School of Excellence award-winning program helps “the intellectual, social, physical and emotional growth” of students to prepare them to become self-sufficient and independent people in society.
This is done through small classes adapted towards students’ specific needs, a curriculum that integrates social skills with academics and multidisciplinary behavior management.
Daniolos urges people interested in autism outreach to find an organization that matches their interests, whether scientific research or advocacy. He stressed that autistic children are not a stereotypical group or a separate type of person.
“It’s unique to each child,” Daniolos said. “We are all people in this spectrum on society.”