In recent years, we’ve become much more aware of various developmental disabilities and social disorders, working closely with the individuals affected by them to understand them better so that they can be given the tools they need to succeed in all aspects of life. Differences of any kind are hard to overcome, especially when they’re met with a lack of knowledge, understanding, patience, and acceptance; but for the countless individuals with autism, those differences no longer have to be the things that keep them from having fully successful and happy lives.
In an effort to increase awareness and get funding for research, April has been officially declared Autism Awareness Month. Both are key in making society more understanding, but we need to do more than that. We need to diagnose it early, find any possible means of prevention, develop programs to work with these individuals in their unique challenges, and learn to be more compassionate as a society.
So just what is autism? By its official definition, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental disability. Most typically, signs appear during early childhood and affect the ability to communicate and interact on a normal level with others. Characteristic of ASD are a certain set of behaviors, and it is considered a “spectrum condition,” meaning that it affects individuals differently and to varying degrees—some more mildly, others more severely.
Some of the most common behaviors associated with autism include a delay in language skills; difficulty making eye contact with others or holding a conversation; challenges with what is known as executive functioning—those things which relate to reasoning, planning, and making decisions; extremely focused, narrow, intense interests; poor sensory and motor skills; and difficulty in connecting with others on an emotional level. A person on the spectrum might exhibit many of these behaviors or show just a few, in addition to displaying many other behaviors besides, and the diagnosis of ASD is applied based on analysis of all behaviors and their severity.
Unfortunately, no single cause of autism has been identified; but an increase in awareness and early diagnosis, early intervention, and access to the right services and support will lead to significantly improved outcomes. It might not seem like much, but every piece of the puzzle of this disorder counts. Every piece we put in place gets us closer to understanding and seeing success. And every piece of the puzzle connects these individuals to one another and to the treatment and support they need to feel like they have a place in the world.
It’s important to remember that autism IS treatable. And while individuals with autism may never “outgrow” the disorder, studies prove that early diagnosis and intervention lead to drastic improvements in the ways that they learn to function. According to the CDC, some signs to look for include:
• Lack of spoken language or marked delay in developing language skills
• Repetitive use of language and/or mannerisms such as hand-flapping, twirling objects, or using certain words or phrases repeatedly in rapid succession
• Little to no eye contact with others
• Lack of interest in forming peer relationships
• Lack of ability to engage in unstructured or make-believe play
• Persistent, almost obsessive fixation on parts of objects or certain activities
As we become more aware, we also need to become more accepting—especially during the childhood years. ALL children need to be shown love, to be raised with compassion for themselves and for others, to be given the opportunity to thrive. And unless children with autism are accepted—not only by the adults around them, but also by other children—they will never have the true tools they need not just to function, but to flourish.
“Moving from awareness to acceptance is a huge undertaking,” says Intake Manager and Development Director for Autism ETC, John Holtzman, who has worked with families and individuals affected by autism for more than a decade. “One of the first steps is understanding that every person in the world is given a gift they need to share with those around them, and this is especially true of those on the autism spectrum. Looking at history, gifted people on the spectrum include inventors, authors, artists, mathematicians, musicians…it’s a list that goes on and on. Acceptance helps these individuals unlock these gifts and use them to benefit all of society, and it is up to each one of us to embrace and celebrate these different gifts and abilities. When we’re able to do that, we’ll truly be able to say that acceptance has been accomplished.
“Moving from awareness to acceptance is a huge undertaking... One of the first steps is understanding that every person in the world is given a gift they need to share with those around them, and this is especially true of those on the autism spectrum.”
- John Holtzman
It’s a goal worth pursuing, this move from awareness to acceptance, because then and only then will we have a world where the puzzle pieces are in place for the full picture to be completed…And what a beautiful picture it will be.
Autism ETC. Education & Therapy Center is located at 161 Hatcher Lane, Clarksville, Tennessee 37043. For more information, call (615) 376-0034 or visit