Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorders:
How Our Communities Can Help
Autism affects about one percent of the world population, and an estimated 3.5 million Americans have some type of autism spectrum disorder. The past 2 decades have seen a sharp increase in the prevalence of autism, which is primarily due to a change in the way autism is diagnosed. In the past, the only people with a diagnosis of autism were individuals who had limited or rigid verbal communication skills along with sensory behaviors that often set them apart from others. Today, autism includes people who not only have these characteristics but also people who have a range of difficulties, including challenges with social communication and social interactions, and restricted interests or patterns of behavior.
Children with autism have a more difficult time developing communication than others, which includes how they speak as well as how receive language from other people. Sometimes, this can lead to behaviors that are difficult or disruptive. Imagine how it would be if you were a child who had a hard time communicating your wants, your needs and your feelings. On top of this frustration, imagine how it would be if you had a hard time understanding other people’s social cues - things that most of us pick up on every day that help us interact effectively can be completely lost on someone who has autism. As a response to this, some children and teens with autism may show “acting-out behaviors”, while others will become withdrawn, and others will have a hard time finding the right things to say and might come across as insensitive or rude. While this is extremely hard for people who have autism to cope with, it is also very difficult for their families and loved ones.
How can you help?
There are several things all of us can do to make life easier for people who have autism and for their families. First, learn more about autism. Locally we have the Autism Support of the West Shore (www.asws.org) - a wonderful resource that provides good information and activities to support people with autism in our area. Additional excellent resources include the Autism Society of America (www.autism-society.org) and Autism Speaks (www.autismspeaks.org).
Second, you can help families by showing patience, compassion and understanding. Parents of children with autism often state that one of the most difficult things for them is their concern that their child will bother other people, or that other people will think their child is intentionally being rude. Most families who have children with autism are actively involved in a variety of therapies and supports from their schools to help with these challenges - but it takes time, and in the process if parents felt that the people in their communities were supportive and understanding of their situation this would relieve a tremendous amount of stress.
So, how can you show this support and understanding? Just a smile can go a long way! Offer to help if you think you can. Give a kind word of encouragement. Be patient and try not to stare, scoff or frown. And remember that any inconvenience you are having because of a difficult or awkward behavior from a child with autism is fleeting; the child and his or her family will continue to struggle with their challenge long after you have stopped thinking about it.
Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA
The Shoreline Center
Grand Haven, MI