Parenthood is never easy and (perhaps) why coffee was invented. But having a child with autism presents unique challenges outside the box of regularly mom and dad duty. It tends to require a specific type of support and extensive intervention.
It’s overwhelming, right? We get it, but don’t panic! Take a deep breath and start by learning as much as you can.
What is Autism?
Autism means different things to different people. This is because it is not a one-symptom-fits-all condition; it involves several challenges marked by impaired social skills, repetitive behaviors, and problems with communication.
Autistic children may struggle making friends with their peers, reading nonverbal or social cues, making decisions, expressing themselves, communicating, controlling emotions, or going with the flow (they favor rigid routine).
They may also show signs of hypersensitive senses, flinching at fireworks off in the distance or taking issue with a piece of chicken in the garbage when you can’t smell anything at all.
They may exhibit unusual interests as well, failing to show excitement in trucks or dolls or other stereotypical toys and instead showing extreme interest in things like airplane engines, comic books, or architecture. Their interests are more likely to laser focus on one or two things rather than encompass a wide-range of activities.
Some children with autism showcase extraordinary talents in music, art, memory, math, or other areas.
How Common is Autism?
In the United States, autism is not as rare as most people think; about 1 in 54 children are believed to be affected. This number has increased over the years, but this likely has more to do with vigilant monitoring rather than an actual rise. In other words, doctors are actively on the lookout for autism so they find it more often.
Boys are diagnosed at a ratio of around 4:1 (though some believe it’s closer to 3:1) and signs typically appear by age 2 or 3.
The Types of Autism
Previously, doctors categorized the different symptoms of autism into different types. These included:
- Asperger’s syndrome
- Pervasive developmental disorder
- Autistic disorder
- Childhood disintegrative disorder
In 2013, the DSM-5 reevaluated autism, closing the chapter on the above types and adopting specifiers that specify the symptoms. Doctors now evaluate autism based on whether it is:
- With or without intellectual impairment
- With or without language impairment
- In association with a medical condition, a genetic condition, or an environmental factor
- In association with other neurodevelopmental, mental, or behavioral disorders
- With catatonia (where one becomes unable to respond or move normally)
The DSM-5 also placed autism under one umbrella diagnosis: Autism spectrum disorders (ASD). This takes into consideration its varying degrees of disability as symptoms can range from mild to severe.
Someone on the mild end of the autism spectrum may be able to live a fairly normal life but struggle with social rules or demonstrate a hyper-focus on things that only interest them, which can alienate their peers. Someone on the severe end of the spectrum may be nonverbal and require lifelong care for everyday functioning.
Autism is far from the only condition to land on a spectrum. Anxiety disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, and stress all range in how life-affecting they may be. Even phobias appear on a spectrum. Some people afraid of heights may only fear looming mountain tops while others may shudder at the thought of standing on a stepstool to change a lightbulb.
Why Early Intervention Matters
Just as the early bird gets the worm, early intervention gets the wisdom: It teaches you about your child’s struggles while providing them with the tools they need to build their skills.
Some of the interventions used include:
- Family training
- Speech therapy
- Hearing impairment therapy
- Occupational therapy
- Physical therapy
- Nutritional therapy
- Behavioral therapy
Research suggests that the earlier autism spectrum disorders are treated, the better the long-term outcomes. This is due to the rate of brain development; when a child is younger, their brain is more pliable, like a jar of Play-Doh before it dries out because the lid was left off. The moldability of the mind paves the way for improved language skills, enhanced motor skills, a higher IQ, better social functioning, and a stronger foundation upon which your child can succeed.
Autism spectrum disorders are lifelong but early intervention improves quality of life. Intervention also helps you and your child see “ability” in their “disability”. It provides you with the networking and resources needed to help your child thrive, shine, and recognize that it takes different strokes to move the world.