The first two years of my nephew Isaac’s life, I noticed the joy he experienced as he observed water pouring out of our bathroom faucets and the spinning of ceiling fans. I also noticed Isaac barely established eye contact with me. Around 60 years ago psychologists would have likely diagnosed my nephew with schizophrenia. Today they diagnose these symptoms under the DSM-5 categorization of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). I can’t think of any other neurodevelopmental disorder that I am more passionate discussing and researching. As my nephew grew up, he would be found taking his father’s math and science books (by happenstance my brother is mathematical statistician for the United States Census Bureau in D.C.). By the time Isaac was in the second grade, he had been placed in the advanced fifth grade mathematics class (he was given this choice) and this is where he began working on mathematical equations. He remains, by all definitions, my hero. Not because of his superior intellectual functioning; but because of his ability to question everyone and everything around him in a complete curious, scientific, and genuine manner as he navigates a life with Autism.
Autism is known to impede communication skills and many misinterpret the verbal and nonverbal impairment as indicative of a cognitive disability. While some with ASD do have lower intelligence, others do not. This is why it is referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder—the problems with communication, intelligence, and behavior are highly variable. In fact, many individuals with ASD will dramatically improve with proper therapy and treatment. Too often, however, it is believed that persons with ASD will never get far in life. And, sometimes meeting an autistic child in person only serves to reaffirm this stereotype. Some of the behaviors my nephew displays could be perceived as insulting; and others who know him understand that he has no intention of offending someone. He is simply trying to make thoughtful remarks—which, due to his difficulty with perceiving social cues, makes it hard for him to carry on a social conversation. Through my experiences with him and others like him, I have come to believe that autistic children are hardly permanently disabled. Rather, they are just missing a few neurological pathways and behavioral skills common to most other people. Furthermore, I’ve come to understand that they are capable of making new neural connections and learning new functional skills. I’ve also seen how they take great pride in their growing accomplishments!
My experiences working with children on the autism spectrum come at a time when rates are rising dramatically. As of 2014, ASD is diagnosed in approximately 1 in 68 children, a 30% increase from 2012, when it was 1 in 88 (per the CDC). This compares to about 1 in 200 in the year 2000. Scientists predict that by the year 2030, 1 in every 15 children will be autistic: approximately 1 in 10 boys, and 1 in 21 girls. Recently, there has been speculation about the causes of ASD and why its occurrence is growing at such an astounding rate. Some theories posit that chemicals in food, commonplace drugs, and other environmental influences may have led to these increased rates. My My work with people on the spectrum has led me to believe that we, as a society, need to develop a deeper understanding of autism, as well as empathize better with those living with the disorder. After all, we need to learn to accept differences in all people, helping others without judgment or uninformed bias. Given the rising rates of ASD, I also believe it’s crucial that we devote ourselves to finding the cause(s) and, in turn, a cure. Better yet, we may find what it takes to prevent ASD in the first place.
-Dr. Andy Fink, Psy.D., L.P.