This month we are celebrating differences as we petition for awareness for autism. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 68 children (1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls) will be born each year having the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). What is it that makes these individuals so unique? And better yet, how can we as a society embrace and accommodate their needs? As children with this diagnosis are becoming adults, how do we make sure they are a productive part of our communities? These questions may not be so easily answered but lets take a look at some of the differences that are evident for individuals living with Autism that may make integrating their differences more achievable.
Social: One of the earliest sign of autism is their difference in social skill abilities or lack there of. The ability to make eye contact, communicate, speak, play or engage in joint attention (mimicking what others do) is in most cases depleted or at least not very strong for those living with autism. For some, using communication tools such as phones, ipads and communication boards can help, but for others even those tools are not helpful. Even so, an electronic device used for communication is void of certain face to face attributes and does not open connection or what we know as real human interaction. There are many instances where animals can assist in this area. Having a pet can open dialog, provide comfort and help engage. One thing for sure is that these human interactive qualities are not usually innate in those with sensory differences and must be taught. Social skills classes or one on one therapies can make a tremendous difference in the ability to socialize as can focused groups such as specialized summer programs or summer camps. Having these experiences can make the difference between being isolated and having a social network.
Movement: Perhaps it’s due to differences in muscle tone or maybe just living with a uniquely different brain, but frequently individuals with Autism have difficulty with motor planning, coordination and balance activities. This may also create a separation in social abilities and feelings of low self-esteem. However, adapted physical education, physical therapy or specialized training/classes in sports or individual athletics such as rock climbing, swimming, biking, skiing or hiking can provide the movement that is crucial to overall well being. Movement acts like a sensory filer reducing extraneous movements like hand flapping and raising endorphin levels. Individuals with autism can often learn to do just about any activity with the right patience and support.
Emotional regulation: We all struggle with it at some time in our lives, but for those on the Autism spectrum it can be a moment-to-moment struggle. Learning to regulate emotion can take a team and family approach that includes looking for signs of emotional instability and learning to catch emotional outbursts before they occur. Using emotional regulation tools such as a calming sensory room, a visual tracker that displays emotional feelings or regular therapy and medication can be just a few tools to help individuals regulate and become aware of their emotional needs.
So, as April comes to an end we remember that it is not just this month that we need to focus on celebrating differences but every month so as to continue to bring awareness and understand for Autism.