April is Autism Awareness Month, and when the folks at NBC Channel 12 called to ask if I would help them raise awareness, of course I said, “Yes.”
I began thinking about Autism Awareness Month and wondered who decided we needed one. Isn’t everybody aware of autism? The startling reality is, according to the CDC that 1 in 68 children in the United States have been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This statistic suggests that most of us know of a family whose life has been touched by autism, but do we have a true and correct understanding of the condition? What is an autism spectrum disorder?
Autism is not one “thing,” and diagnosing it is very difficult. I explain it this way: it’s a brain difference in how a person takes in information from the world, processes it all and then communicates with the world. You will probably want to read and learn more at KidsHealth and at HealthyChildren.
One thing I think parents should know is that screening for autism happens at every check-up I do. Pediatricians observe babies and children. We listen as parents explain how their children interact with the world, how they sense their surroundings and how they communicate with people. There is a wide spectrum of what is normal, but in some children… over time, we see signs that something isn’t quite right. At the 18-month checkup, many pediatricians use a screening test called the M-CHAT (the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers) to gather even more information.
Screening for autism is not diagnosing autism, however. There are no blood tests or brain scans to tell us if a child has autism. To be sure, many parents worry. If there is one thing I know for sure, it is important to share these worries with your trusted pediatrician and ask for help. Early diagnosis is important to help children receive needed therapies, and it takes time to make a diagnosis on the autism spectrum.
Our Richmond community is blessed with a wide range of services to support children and their families. There is NO reason to ‘go it alone’ if your child is diagnosed on the autism spectrum. You can learn more by clicking Here. Here. And Here.
That said, most worries are unfounded. There is a wonderful book by my friend, Perri Klass called Quirky Kids, and I highly recommend it. It’s when not to worry. Dr. Klass and I see children every day in our work, and we know that some will be diagnosed with autism. But others grow up to be quirky Uncle Fred, too.
As April brings awareness to the needs of children with autism, I would also hope that this campaign will nurture an inner compassion in people who do not have autism for those that do. All children deserve kindness and a willingness to see them for the strengths and the goodness that lives inside. Support and an openness to children on the autism spectrum comes from people like you and me. I remind myself and the parents in my practice that all children are gifted. Some just open their packages sooner than others.
Gayle Schrier Smith, MD