Facts About Autism

Some facts about autism are well known. Others are not so well known, and many have yet to be discovered. Here are some things we know about autism. Some of them may surprise you.

The incidence of autism is on the rise.

A few years ago, about one in 150 children born were diagnosed with autism. Today the rate is one in 88. Some people have referred to this as an "epidemic" resulting from an increasingly toxic environment; others have dismissed it as a "bandwagon" phenomenon, or a "diagnosis du jour". In reality, the autism statistics are probably affected by a number of factors, including greater public awareness, broadening of the definition used for autism, and more accurate reporting. But it does seem likely that there has been an actual increase in the number of people with autism. I have yet to hear a convincing explanation for why this number would be on the rise, but it is clear that autism is not a "passing fad".

Boys are more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls.

It's about two to one, in fact. At the time of this writing (early 2013), about 50 children attend the two autism centers where I was working, and about three quarters of them were boys. Again, I can't explain why this is so, but it is.

Autism affects all cultures, all races, all ethnicities, all religions, all nationalities.

Wretches and Jabberers is a documentary film about two American adult men with autism who travel around the world to meet with others on the spectrum and to raise public awareness. Take a look at the trailer (below). The full movie is available on Hulu and on Netflix streaming.

Not all people with autism are mentally impaired. Researchers in the United Kingdom found that 31% scored in the average or above average range (IQ 85 or above). Only 16% of their sample tested in the moderately to severely mentally handicapped (IQ less than 50). These numbers may, in fact, be artificially low. Tests that rely heavily on verbal instructions, questions, and responses almost certainly put people with autism at a disadvantage, as do tests that penalize the taker for longer response times.

Not all people with autism are "savants".

In fact, very few of them are. If you saw Rain Man and are planning to borrow your cousin's autistic kid for a weekend so you can make a fortune counting cards in Vegas, you're probably in for a very expensive reality check. I've met a lot of people in my life, and every person I have ever known is an expert on something. My clients with autism surprise me every day with things I didn't know they could do, but really all that means is that I'm getting to know them better, and getting better at spotting their abilities. The abilities of people with autism are often buried beneath the behaviors we neurotypicals find so distracting, but these abilities are not usually any more or less remarkable than the abilities the rest of us have. They just seem that way because they take us by surprise. Some people with autism have exceptionally high intelligence, but most do not. I've worked with a lot of kids on the spectrum; I've never worked with a "savant".

Parents of children with autism make significantly less money than parents of typically developing children.

Parenting a child with special needs is a full-time job. Many parents of children with autism sacrifice income so that they can give their children the care they need. In some cases, this means not having any paid work; in others, it may mean cutting back to part time or accepting a lower-paying job closer to home or with more flexible hours or better health insurance benefits.

Parents of children with autism are more likely to divorce than parents of typically developing children.

Parenting a child with special needs is expensive, stressful, and often frustrating. A spouse who stays home to care for a child with autism may feel trapped, envious, and resentful of the spouse who gets to leave the house every day and escape the pressure of caring for a high-maintenance child. A spouse who works full-time may feel trapped, envious, and resentful of the spouse who gets to stay home and escape the pressure of being the sole wage earner. This is not a relationship-enhancing situation. Date night? Are you kidding? It's hard enough to find a good, reliable babysitter for a typically developing child; good luck finding one who can handle a kid with autism!

It's not all bleak.

Effective treatments are available for children and adults on the autism spectrum. Early diagnosis and intervention greatly increase the likelihood of an individual achieving maximum independence. Along with the rising incidence of autism has come increased awareness. More and more organizations are springing up to provide support and advocacy or to support research on autism. More and more professionals are learning how to provide effective services for children and adults with autism. Children with autism who grow up in supportive families and communities, and who receive effective intervention from qualified professionals, can often grow up to be happy, healthy, productive members of society. The institutional life of Raymond in Rain Man, once the norm for people with autism, is becoming more and more the exception.

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