The CDC has reported today that 1 in 88 children in the U.S. has an diagnosis of autism, up 78 percent from 2006’s numbers of 1 in 110.
During that same time, the number of children in my own home with a diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder has also risen. It’s gone from 0 in 4 to 2 in 4. My son was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome at age 4; his older sister was diagnosed with Asperger this year at age 10.
While doctors debate the cause of the rise in diagnoses on a national level, there is absolutely no debate about the cause of the rise in diagnoses in my house. Neither of my children just became autistic; they’ve been autistic their whole lives. It’s just that we finally found the word for what was going on.
The cause for our diagnoses? Better awareness. Better, and more widely-available tools to evaluate children, like quick screenings at the pediatrician’s office. Clinicians who realize that the original autism evaluations were designed for autistic boys, and might not be as effective for diagnosing girls. But mostly, the rapidly dissipating fear of “labeling” a child. Fewer parents fear the “stigma” of an autism diagnosis.
Ultimately, at least for our family, the cause of the autism itself is genetics. There are a lot of “quirky” people in our family tree, including people who would be diagnosed with Asperger if they were in elementary school today. The difference is that for my kids, having the diagnosis of autism enables them to receive therapy now to help them cope with a world that is extremely stressful to them. In addition to behavioral skills training, we’re working together with our school staff to teach them both pragmatic language skills, an area in which they’re both struggling.
Pragmatic language skills include the social use of language (such as understanding body language), as well as understanding rhetorical questions, figurative language, and sarcasm. The best example I can give about pragmatic language is that if you tell my 10-year-old daughter “it’s raining cats and dogs,” she’ll look for the cats and dogs. If you then explain what the expression means, she can learn it, and then she’ll know it from her on out. However, she can’t generalize that knowledge to the expression “it’s raining buckets.” She’ll look for the buckets.
In my daughter’s case, her Asperger diagnosis came right smack in the middle of the average age for girls to be diagnosed: between the ages of 8 and 12. Asperger’s tends to manifest a little differently in girls, whose “narrow, focused interests of unusual intensity” may not send out any alarms. Lots of girls are “obsessed” with horses, or cats, or astronomy. Boys are more likely to pick something obscure and less socially-acceptable, like memorizing train schedules or weather patterns. (Note: I thank my lucky stars every day that my son’s obsession is Legos, which enables him to carry on appropriate social conversations with other boys his age.)
Girls, even girls with Asperger, are also more adept at mimicking other girls, so they tend to blend in fine socially, for the most part. In my daughter’s case, her differences became glaringly obvious in fourth grade, when other girls started to become more emotionally mature, and she just … didn’t. When other girls became more nuanced in their conversations, she couldn’t keep up. She still has a more physical, younger style of play, which is, unfortunately, “not cool” to many of her peers.
Our son’s diagnosis at 4 is typical of boys. Until a doctor recommended he be evaluated for Asperger, we had only been impressed with his quirks: the fact that he had memorized every Star Wars character in all six movies plus The Clone Wars, the fact that he was starting to memorize multiplication facts and geography showed, to us, a great attention span. Because he was comfortable and affectionate with family, we just didn’t notice that he wasn’t like other kids. In retrospect, the fact that we already had one quirky, undiagnosed autistic kid probably helped us miss the clues. However, it became rapidly clear that there were many ways in which our son was different from his peers. Also, it turns out that it’s not typical for a 3-year-old to insist that we check to make sure that everything, including power strips, are switched off before we’re able to leave the house. Who knew?
The diagnosis has been nothing but helpful to both my kids. For my daughter especially, to be able to put a name to the ways in which she knew her brain was different, was an immense relief. Before her diagnosis, she had started to think that she was “stupid” and “a monster.”
(via: ABC News)
(Photo Credit: iPhotostock)