Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Autism Scare

First let me say that I'm not being dismissive of children (and adults) with autism. My brother is likely on the spectrum and works at a school for high-functioning teens on the spectrum. I understand how important it is to have early interventions, ongoing support, and a society that can accept the strengths and limitations of those with autism. Raising awareness of what autism is and how it is manifest is a noble mission.

However, I don't think scare tactics are the way to go.

As a former school psychologist, I get frustrated by data like those depicted on the button above. (And the probable typo in the parenthetical comment, but for different reasons...) Yes, the number of children identified on the autism spectrum has risen dramatically over the past ten years. Optimistically, this is the result of better autism awareness. Kids with Aspergers or high-functioning autism are now being identified and getting assistance, rather than just getting by and being "quirky". Children who previously were mis-identified as mentally retarded are now recognized as having autism. This is a cause for celebration, not scare tactics.

Data from the US Department of Education show that mental retardation rates have dropped in the same manner as autism rates have risen. Pessimistically, the autism label may be preferred by parents, so children are being mis-identified because of pressure on school. I know of at least one child suddenly identified as autistic in 3rd grade. He shut down socially after his parents traumatic divorce. When reviewing his case for a Committee on Special Education meeting, I noticed he had no symptoms of autism before 3rd grade. I pointed out to the committee that trauma does not cause autism and was completely ignored. The parents wanted an autism label rather than emotional disturbance, so they got it. This is certainly anecdotal, but it does attest that such things can and do happen.

April is autism awareness month. Take the time to learn about autism and how to support families struggling with it. Spread the news. But please don't make it a message of fear.

1 comment:

  1. The official diagnostic criteria haven't changed, though. Maybe more cases are being diagnosed, but not over 10 times more. Autism is definitely on the rise, whatever the reason.