Back to articles

Dispelling the Myths and Telling the True Story of Autism

Joni Schumacher News

Not long ago, the word autism held the same taboo as words like cancer and dementia. Autistic children and adults were often hidden away and rarely discussed, even among family members. Fortunately for those individuals—and our society as a whole—the world has changed.

April is National Autism Awareness Month, an opportunity to focus on a condition that many people are aware of but few understand fully. Autism is often thought of as an emotional or psychological disorder; in reality, it is a neurodevelopmental disorder—an issue with the growth and development of the brain and/or the nervous system.

Another common misconception about autism is that it shows up in the same way in every person. The fact is that the condition is actually called autism spectrum disorder (ASD) because autism manifests itself to widely varying degrees. Most children and adults diagnosed with ASD can lead very productive lives. For instance, those with the disorder can have strong skillsets in areas such as science and technology, where it is important to be detail-oriented, methodical, dedicated and highly motivated to solve a very specific problem.

Research shows that, along with a strong genetic component, ASD can comprise two main issues: sensory processing disorders and motor planning disorders. A sensory processing disorder makes it difficult for people to gain accurate information from their five senses. As a result, things may be too loud, too bright, too itchy, too smelly, etc. Because they can’t rely on the information they’re getting from their environment, people with a sensory processing disorder may end up exhibiting repetitive behaviors, have difficulty interacting with others and experience challenges with overall communication skills.

Motor planning disorders can keep people from performing basic movements spontaneously. Normally when we move, our bodies take a split-second to plan the move, decide what sequence of events have to occur then signal the right muscles for action. Motor planning disorders disrupt natural actions, such as playground play and speech production.

As with nearly all diseases and conditions, early diagnosis is the key to the best outcome for children with ASD. But how do you know if your child is displaying symptoms of ASD? One way is to keep your regular checkups with your pediatrician or family medicine physician as your baby develops from an infant into a toddler and beyond.

Another way to watch for signs of ASD is in your everyday interactions with your child. As a parent, you’ll expect to have lots of warm, joyful interactions with your baby—he or she will babble, coo and engage in simple, back-and-forth games with you, for instance. If you’re noticing those exchanges are not happening and that your baby is overly fussy, not paying attention to your contact or not responding to you, it might be time to visit your physician for an evaluation.

If your child is diagnosed with ASD, there are great resources in our area for treatment—including Simi Valley Hospital’s Child Development Center. Wherever you go for care, a developmental specialist will work with you to write a treatment plan that addresses your child’s specific strengths and weaknesses. Depending on the plan, your child may work with a range of specially trained professionals, including speech/language pathologists, occupational therapists and physical therapists.

One of the great things about this experience is that your child will never know he or she is undergoing treatment. Any program you choose should use play-based techniques to engage with your child to expand his or her learning potential. Every child wants to learn and is naturally curious, so therapists use these built-in desires to not only help children learn specific skills but also help them learn how to learn. Learning is based in exploration, interaction, imitation and observation, and therapy for ASD incorporates activities that hit on all of these important factors.

Other intervention could include educational and behavioral approaches. Most children benefit from a combination of therapy approaches.

For more information about ASD, visit the website of the National Institutes of Health (nih.gov) and enter “ASD” in the search box. If you’re an adult with ASD, visit socialthinking.com to learn about certified therapists who help people with ASD function better in social situations.

Joni Schumacher, MS, CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist at Simi Valley Hospital’s Child Development Center.