For some people, autism is a disorder distantly located in the back of their minds, but for others it is something that affects everyday life. The rate of autism has been increasing in young children over the past 20 years. In fact, one in 100 children are affected by autism. In other words, there are 1.5 million estimated cases of autism in the United States alone.
Autism is a broad term that is used to describe Pervasive Developmental Disorders, (PDD), which is a group of complex developmental brain disorders. Rett syndrome, Childhood Disintegrative disorder and Asperger’s syndrome are part of a similar category of PDDs called Pervasive Development Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDO-NOS).
These disorders are fairly common. Childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes and pediatric AIDS are actually less common than childhood autism. Government statistics and studies show that the rate of childhood autism is increasing by 10-17 percent annually. Mysteriously, there is no known reason why there is such a large increase from year-to-year. However, increases in the number of diagnoses, as well as environmental influences, are believed to be some of the reasons why the percent is increasing.
The majority of autism cases have no scientific explanation. However, autism has different levels of severity and combinations of symptoms. Genetics allegedly play a big factor in causing autism, along with unknown environmental factors. Even so, only a small number of cases can be directly linked to genetic and environmental factors.
A popular interest among researchers is the role of the functions and regulation of the immune system in children with autism. Evidence shows that autism may have something to do with the central nervous system, when the disorder causes the nervous system to become inflated.
Currently, there is no medical test to diagnose autism, but there are signs to look for when diagnosing a child with the disorder. In a phone interview with the secretary of LINK (a student-run autism awareness group on campus), junior Beth Kenney, she explained some of the signs and symptoms of autism. Kenney said that autism is a social disorder, which means some of the symptoms can include lacking eye contact, being nonverbal or having Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Kenney explained, “Most people will not even recognize the hum of florescent lights but to a child with autism the hum can be a bother. Some kids cannot feel pain, which may cause them to harm themselves without even knowing.”
“It’s an increase in diagnosis instead of an increase in the disease,” Michelle Beebe said, a sophomore occupational therapy major. Beebe explained that, “It seems like the disorder is rapidly increasing, but that is not the case. The disorder seems like it is increasing because of the advancement in technology, medicine and the ability to diagnose the disorder better.” Kenney agrees with Beebe, saying, “There are a couple of reasons as to why the disorder is increasing, but one of the main reasons is better diagnostics.”
As stated before, there is no known cure for autism, but there are ways to cope with the disorder. “Hopefully, we can integrate autistic children into society so they can have a better lifestyle. Not that they will get over it completely, but so they can effectively communicate with each other and live a full life, knowing how to read people’s feelings and knowing how to respond,” Beebe said.
However, Beebe has a thought on how to possibly treat autism. “It would be cool if we could do genetic surgery to the autistic child while it is still a fetus,” Beebe said. By performing this type of procedure, it would change the child’s genes to hopefully prevent autism.
“Even though autism is a scientific mystery, it is a serious epidemic. There are so many people affected by autism, and it is a huge stressor on everyone involved. Even though there are medications and therapies to treat autism, there is no cure and this poses a serious threat for all of their futures,” junior occupational therapy major Corinne Zannetti said. “Families and children with autism need as much help as they can get, and sometimes it just isn’t enough. Other times it can be so incredibly rewarding to be involved in this cause because every little bit means so much to those that you help.”
Without a cure, Zannetti knows that we need to be prepared for what the future could hold. “There could [be a] large number of individuals who will need in-home care, group home placements and lifelong medical treatment,” she said. “This can have a huge strain on healthcare and social security.”
Zannetti remains hopeful despite the many challenges that she foresees down the road. She encourages everyone to become familiar with autism, even as she wonders what the future might hold for all those affected.
“Autism is more than a worthy cause to be involved in, and I would suggest you check it out and get some first-hand experience if you haven’t already,” Zannetti said.
Autism is not only a disorder; it is a part of life. It is something that should never be taken lightly, and it is more common than many people think. Although there is no cure, scientists are always working to find one, but hopefully, in the meantime, we will be able to manage the disorder and help people with autism live a better life.