Or World Autism Day, depending on who you ask. Today is a pretty good day to talk about all things related to autism, but the key is getting people to understand. I am committed to posting at least once a day on my blog during the month of April, which is National Autism Awareness Month, just to help educate and inform. So I think I’ll start today with the basics.

Autism Awareness Ribbon

Autism Awareness Ribbon

What is autism? Well, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Volum IV (DSM-IV), you have autism if:

A. A total of six (or more) items from (1), (2), and (3), with at
least two from (1), and one each from (2) and (3)

(1) qualitative impairment in social interaction, as manifested by
at least two of the following:

a) marked impairments in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors
such as eye-to-eye gaze, facial expression, body posture, and
gestures to regulate social interaction

b) failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to
developmental level

c) a lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment, interests, or
achievements with other people, (e.g., by a lack of showing,
bringing, or pointing out objects of interest to other people)

d) lack of social or emotional reciprocity ( note: in the
description, it gives the following as examples: not actively
participating in simple social play or games, preferring solitary
activities, or involving others in activities only as tools or
“mechanical” aids )

(2) qualitative impairments in communication as manifested by at
least one of the following:

a) delay in, or total lack of, the development of spoken language
(not accompanied by an attempt to compensate through alternative
modes of communication such as gesture or mime)

b) in individuals with adequate speech, marked impairment in the
ability to initiate or sustain a conversation with others

c) stereotyped and repetitive use of language or idiosyncratic

d) lack of varied, spontaneous make-believe play or social
imitative play appropriate to developmental level

(3) restricted repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior,
interests and activities, as manifested by at least two of the

a) encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and
restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in
intensity or focus

b) apparently inflexible adherence to specific, nonfunctional
routines or rituals

c) stereotyped and repetitive motor mannerisms (e.g hand or finger
flapping or twisting, or complex whole-body movements)

d) persistent preoccupation with parts of objects

B. Delays or abnormal functioning in at least one of the following
areas, with onset prior to age 3 years:

(1) social interaction

(2) language as used in social communication

(3) symbolic or imaginative play

C. The disturbance is not better accounted for by Rett’s Disorder
or Childhood Disintegrative Disorder

I understand that doesn’t really give you a definition, but may help you understand that autism is not a cut and dried diagnosis, like a sinus infection or even diabetes. The Autism Society of America defines autism as “a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life and affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. Autism is defined by a certain set of behaviors and is a “spectrum disorder” that affects individuals differently and to varying degrees. There is no known single cause for autism, but increased awareness and funding can help families today.

Awareness can help. Many people I have spoken with don’t really understand why awareness helps families with autism. Let me give you some examples from my life where awareness would have made life easier. First off, my son Raymond has High Functioning Autism. Much of the time he presents like a typical kid. However, when you begin to engage him you start to see his issues. One of his issues is auditory processing. He has acute hearing but has difficulty processing and making sense of sounds. Imagine how difficult simple things like shopping and riding in a car could be! Well, when I am in public and Raymond starts to melt down, I am typically very calm. I attempt to redirect him, offer him fidgets or whatever toys I have stuffed in my jacket pocket, but I keep on shopping or doing what I’m doing.
I can tell this frustrates some people. I get the looks. You know, the “why can’t you control your kid” looks that parents get from non-parents. I ignore them now, but when we were first discovering these things I actually had people come up to me and ask “what are you doing to that child.” Naturally I had some choice words for them, but on reflection I wish I could address them again and say the following:

“My son has autism, a severe developmental disorder. He has difficulty remaining calm in crowded or busy surroundings. Unfortunately, I still have to buy groceries and clothing or my family will walk around naked and starving. If this inconveniences you, I’m sorry, but understand it is only an inconvenience to you. It is much more than that to me. In the future, please try to be considerate of parents who are trying to handle their children. They might be going through something you cannot understand. Thank you.”

So awareness helps. Be kind, and understand that people who are not typical have the same rights to public places that you do. If you are not a tolerant person, give it a try. I promise you will get more than you give.