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Commentary: One in 58 children have autism

By Gene Rossum, Brandon, MN

April is National Autism Awareness Month.

Nationally 1 in 58 children are diagnosed with autism. In Minnesota, some say in may be as high as 1 in 42.

What is autism?

When people refer to autism today, they are usually talking about Autism Spectrum Disorders or ASD. That encompasses four complex, brain-based disorders that affect a person's behavior as well as social and communication skills. Those four disorders are; autistic disorder, childhood disintegrating disorder, pervasive developmental disorder — not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), and Asperger syndrome.

These four were merged into the one umbrella of ASD in 2013. The Center for Disease Controls describes ASD as "developmental disabilities that cause substantial impairments in social interaction and communication and the presence of unusual behaviors and interests." Some of the behaviors can be extremely challenging.

Many also have unusual ways of learning, paying attention, and reacting to different sensations. Their abilities can range from very gifted to severely challenged. Autism is four times more likely to affect boys than girls. There is no known single cause for autism and there is no known cure.

Researchers have identified over 200 genes that have been found to be defective in those with autism. However, most believe that it is a combination of autism risk genes and environmental factors influencing early brain development that results in autism. ASD is usually noticed before the age of 3, but it lasts throughout a person's life.

People on the spectrum range from lawyers, college professors, and musical and mathematical geniuses to those who are non-verbal and have severe behaviors and other significant cognitive impairments and may have the mental capacity of a young child. Those who are the lawyers, doctors, professors and such who usually have the Asperger diagnosis, despite some difficult social interactions, generally can have successful careers. On the other hand, those who have significant communication issues and may be cognitively impaired may struggle with daily tasks such as dressing, personal care, housekeeping and as well as securing and keeping any employment.

There is a common saying that says "If you have seen one person with autism, you have seen one person with autism." The spectrum is very broad, and every person with autism is different. The increased prevalence of autism in the past 20 years is a result of the broadening of the conditions included in the spectrum and the availability of better tools to assess and identify ASD. The autism rate is growing at a rate of 10-17 percent per year.

Persons with autism may exhibit some of the following partial list of traits: Aggressive or self-injurious behavior; hand flapping or body rocking; spinning objects; insistence on sameness and resistance to change; difficulty in expressing needs or using gestures or pointing instead of words; repeating words or phrases in place of normal responsive language; preference to being alone or having aloof manner; not wanting to cuddle or be cuddled; little or no eye contact; obsessive attachment to objects; apparent over-sensitivity or under-sensitivity to pain; oversensitivity to sudden or loud sounds; no real fear of danger; uneven gross or fine motor skills; non-responsive to verbal cues; may act as if deaf but hearing is normal.

Many with ASD have significant cognitive impairments, although some have typical or even above average IQs. Between 30 to 50 percent of people with autism also have seizures. Also, in recent years many have come to feel that those with autism may be more likely to have food allergies, particularly allergies to dairy products and wheat or gluten.

The reality is that those who are children today will add to the already significant number of adults with autism. That will magnify the task of caring for them and ensuring that they have every opportunity to live and work where they choose.

If you have a family member or acquaintance who is autistic and you are concerned about their future care and well-being and are interested in participating in an advocacy group focused on ensuring their future options as they become adults, you can call Gene Rossum at 320-491-3817 or email gener1@gctel.com so we can develop a strong voice in West Central Minnesota.