Some people are concerned by the sharp increase in autism diagnoses in the U.S. In 2000, one in 150 children were officially diagnosed with autism. By 2008, that number had risen to one in 88. Today, researchers estimate that one out of every 59 children in the U.S. has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In just 12 years, California saw autism diagnoses spike by more than 600 percent.
Far from indicating the beginning of a national autism epidemic, this increase indicates that autism awareness is spreading. As it does, children with autism are being diagnosed earlier, receiving appropriate treatment sooner and leading happier, more fulfilled lives. Thanks in part to the efforts of the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network, more families are recognizing the signs of autism and getting their children the support that they need. This post will cover the facts that caring adults need to know and discuss ways that you can do your part to increase autism awareness.
Autism by the numbers
The most recent research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1.7 percent of American eight-year-olds have been diagnosed with an ASD. This rate tracks with the incidence observed in other developed nations. As with many mental health conditions, a gender gap exists with ASD. Boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed than girls.
While children as young as 2 can be reliably diagnosed, most children do not receive an ASD diagnosis until after age 4. The median age of first diagnosis varies based on the disorder subtype. It ranges from 3 years 10 months for children with autistic disorder to 5 years 7 months for children diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.
Although diagnosis does not occur until later, parents of children with an ASD typically notice developmental differences before their child’s first birthday. Parents often initially report concerns with their infant’s hearing or vision and later notice issues with communication, social interaction and fine motor skills.
Autism impacts people across all demographic groups. While white children are still more likely to be diagnosed than minority children, this gap has been narrowing in recent years. People with autism come from all socioeconomic backgrounds and display a wide range of intellectual abilities. Nearly half of all children with an ASD have been observed to have average or above-average intelligence.
The Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network
To further autism awareness and research, the Children’s Health Act of 2000 empowered the CDC to create the ADDM Network. The network funds 11 sites located in different states across the country to track the number and characteristics of children with autism. This is the largest, ongoing autism tracking study in the U.S.
With funding from the federal government, the ADDM Network sites use a population-based surveillance method to research the prevalence of autism. Their researchers study incidences of ASD and other developmental differences among groups of thousands of children in diverse communities throughout the continental U.S. In addition to identifying how many children have been diagnosed with autism, the ADDM also seeks to understand which children are more likely to be diagnosed and at what age.
All 11 current ADDM sites are funded to study instances of ASD among 8-year-old children. The CDC chose to focus on 8-year-olds because previous research has shown that most children with autism have been diagnosed by this age. Additionally, six of those sites have received funding to track autism prevalence among 4-year-old children. With this data, the CDC seeks to further their understanding of the early identification and characteristics of young children with ASD.
The ADDM Network analyzes the data that they collect to identify significant trends and monitor changes over time. In addition to their tracking activities, ADDM sites also engage in education and outreach efforts in their communities.
Things you can do to increase autism awareness
Though rising diagnosis rates point to increasing awareness, caring adults play a vital role in promoting understanding, resources and research to support people with ASD. Parents are their children’s biggest advocates and are important voices in the autism community. Other relatives, teachers, caregivers and community members can also take action to support children, teens and adults with autism.
Whether you are already well-informed or are just beginning to learn about ASD, there are a variety of ways that you can help to promote autism awareness. Here are a few things you can do to get involved and make a difference:
- Learn the early symptoms of autism. Any caring adult can play an important role in ensuring children with ASD are diagnosed as soon as possible. Young children with autism often exhibit difficulty making eye contact, a limited vocabulary, little response to social interaction, limited facial expressions, strong resistance to change, repetitive or unusual play, a strong attachment to usual objects and a fixation on sensory interests such as blinking lights or fans. If you observe any of these signs in an infant or toddler, encourage the child’s parents to ask their doctor to conduct an autism screening during their next visit.
- Donate to nonprofit autism research institutions. With many reputable organizations working to better understand ASD, assisting researchers is as easy as making a one-time or recurring gift. Charity Navigator can help by providing the information that you need to ensure your donation supports a trustworthy, well-run institution.
- Organize or assist with fundraising events. If you are interested in getting more involved, autism awareness and research organizations need volunteers to assist with event planning and logistics. You can organize your own fundraiser in your community, sign up to staff an event or join a fundraising team. To get started, identify an organization that you would like to support and check their website for opportunities to get involved.
- Inform your neighborhood and community. For parents of children with autism, raising awareness should start at home. Talk to your neighbors about how autism impacts your child. Increasing awareness in your neighborhood can help to prevent incidents and keep your child safe. To begin these conversations, inform your neighbors that your child has autism, explain any associated behaviors they may see and ensure that they know how to contact you if needed.
- Educate local law enforcement. Unfortunately, many people with autism will experience an adverse encounter in which the authorities are called. Ensuring that your local law enforcement officials are informed about autism helps them to better manage these situations. If your child has autism and exhibits behavior that could pose a safety risk, consider proactively reaching out to local law enforcement to provide information about your child’s challenges, communication needs and emergency contacts. There are also resources available to teach officers how to respond to incidents involving a person with autism.
- Sit down and learn from people with ASD. Regardless of how much you already have read or observed, you can learn a lot about autism by listening to people who are living with it. Each person with ASD is unique and has their own stories and experiences. If you don’t personally know someone with autism or are interested in meeting new people, volunteer with your local Special Olympics or let Big Brothers Big Sisters know that you’re open to mentoring a child on the autism spectrum.
- Share your personal story about life with autism. If you, your child or another close family member has an ASD, you can add to the dialogue by sharing your personal story. First-person experiences help to provide others with a realistic portrayal of what people with autism experience. For those who are comfortable sharing their story, there are many different ways to do so. You can talk about it with friends and family, share posts on social media, speak to a community group, write a blog or create a post for the Autism Society.
- Celebrate Autism Awareness Day and Autism Awareness Month. Activities to increase awareness generate extra attention during the month of April, which is designated as National Autism Awareness Month in the U.S. To promote autism understanding, resources and advocacy, the month is celebrated with presidential and congressional declarations, events, fundraisers and participation activities. Many people show their support by wearing ribbons or clothing featuring the autism awareness puzzle pieces, which represent the uniqueness and complexity of people on the autism spectrum. Observe World Autism Awareness Day every April 2 by wearing puzzle pieces or the color blue.
- Advocate for people with autism. Because many important programs depend on government funding, the decisions made by federal and state governments impact the resources available for autism research and support. Learn more about the legislative issues that affect children, teens and adults with autism and reach out to your representatives to start a conversation. By getting involved as an advocate, you can promote initiatives to improve the health, education, safety and employment opportunities available to people with autism.
If you are the parent of a child with an ASD, there are many resources available to support your family. Lexington Services specializes in empowering children and teens with autism to reach their full potential. Learn more about how the Lexington Life Academy helps students to develop the academic, behavioral and social skills that they need to succeed.
To get more like this, read the last post.