World Autism Awareness Day is celebrated on April 2 and was created in order to inform the general public about autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to help build understanding and compassion about these neurodiverse individuals.
There are a number of traits that characterize ASD, including diminished social interactions, a high dependency on routine, hyperfocus on particular items or hobbies, certain habitual physical movements, and more.
Because the disorder exists on a spectrum, some of these symptoms may be very mild and the individual will be able to lead a fairly typical life, or the symptoms can be severe and inhibit many aspects of their everyday lives. Autism cannot be cured, but there are therapies that help reduce the symptoms and promote independence.
In honor of World Autism Awareness Day, here are three things everyone needs to keep in mind:
1. Autism is not a new phenomenon.
The idea that ASD is a recent phenomenon is illogical. It was first described over 100 years ago in 1908, though it was reserved for those with schizophrenia who were also emotionally withdrawn. As research into these neurological disorders has increased, the criteria have changed to reflect that new knowledge.
While the rate of those who have been diagnosed with ASD have skyrocketed in recent decades, there are a number of factors in play that make it unclear if more people actually have ASD symptoms or if doctors have gotten better at identifying it.
In addition to the changing criteria over the years, the stigma in society surrounding mental health is beginning to change for the better. For too many years, people who were neurodiverse were ostracized, which prevented many people from seeking help when something was wrong. Symptoms of ASD were just written off as quirks, particularly in those on the mild end of the spectrum.
Instead of lamenting that the number of diagnoses has gone up, it's better to recognize that so many more people are now getting the help and resources they need, rather than suffering alone.
2. People with autism are capable of doing great things.
Many people erroneously put one of two stereotypes onto people with autism: either that they aren't capable of doing anything worthwhile or that they are savants with unfathomable talent in a particular area.
People with autism have gone on to be celebrated artists, dancers, and scientists through hard work and determination. It might not always be obvious what an individual's talents are (which is true for all people, really), but everyone has something about themselves they can share with others.
Those with autism may have an additional burden by experiencing sensory overload or a decreased ability to express emotions clearly, but they are still people who deserve to be treated with dignity and kindness, and be allowed to explore their interests.
3. Vaccines do not cause autism.
Many cases of ASD diagnoses occur around the time that children receive many vaccines, which make some people think there is a connection between the two, but there absolutely isn't.
While all of the causes of ASD haven't been identified, certain characteristics can be identified as early as the second trimester of pregnancy. Genetics are believed to play a role, as are some environmental factors.