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Eight Things You Ought to Know About Autism (but Might Not)

How much do you really know about autism? Probably not as much as you think. To mark National Autism Awareness month, here are eight things you may not be aware of — yet.

1. Not all forms of autism are equal.
The appropriate name for this condition is “autism spectrum disorders” (ASD). As the name implies, it encompasses a wide range of conditions, from high-functioning individuals with Asperger syndrome to people who require constant one-to-one care, with many stops in between. (For more about what constitutes autism, see this guide from Autism Speaks.)

This has caused a huge rift in the autism community between those who believe parents of ASD children should be the primary advocates for autistic people and those who believe autistic people should be allowed to represent themselves.

2. It’s kind of a geek thing.
There appears to be an unusually high presence of autism in the tech world, in large part because the characteristics associated with high-functioning autism are often considered a plus when working with computers. For example, Aspiritech, a software testing company in Chicago, hires only high-functioning people with ASD as test engineers because of their attention to detail and affinity for repetitive tasks.

Bit Torrent inventor Bram Cohen and hacker/journalist Adrian Lamo are examples of high-tech figures whose Asperger diagnoses are public knowledge; some speculate that such highly successful geeks as Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, and Mark Zuckerberg may also be on the spectrum. (Others posthumously diagnosed with high-functioning ASD include Mozart, Einstein, and Nikola Tesla, though there’s obviously no way to verify any of that.)


Albert Einstein, who may (or may not) have had Asperger syndrome. (David Wallace/Flickr)

3. It is way more common than you might suspect.
One in 68 American children has been diagnosed with ASD, according to a March 2014 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s a rise of nearly 30 percent in just two years. For boys, the rate is one in 42. And that survey includes only 8-year-olds, so the actual number of people with ASD could be higher.

4. But it’s not an epidemic.
The biggest reason there are more cases of autism today is because doctors have gotten better at identifying it, according to analysis by the CDC. At the same time, they’ve also expanded the definition of what ASD is. Conditions that might have been diagnosed as early onset schizophrenia or “mental retardation” a decade ago are now called autism. Asperger syndrome, once considered a separate but related disorder, has also been rolled into the definition.

5. Autism is tricky to diagnose.
There is no blood test for ASD. Diagnoses are based entirely on observations of behavior and cognitive development. This process is complicated by the fact that many people with ASD also suffer from other neurological disorders such as ADHD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and Tourette syndrome. So, while diagnoses have improved a lot in the past decade, it’s still possible that some who are diagnosed with ASD may not actually have it.

6. It is not caused by vaccines.
Even Generation Rescue founder Jenny McCarthy is finally backing away from this claim, after she and a handful of others made a lot of noise about it for the past few years.


Jenny McCarthy, anti-vaxx spokesmodel — until recently, anyway. (MingleMediaTV/Flickr)

After examining numerous scientific studies, the independent Institute of Medicine concluded in August 2011 that the use of vaccines — particularly the measles mumps rubella (MMR) vaccine routinely given to children under the age of 6 — has no relationship to the rise in ASD cases. The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a similar report in April 2013. The anti-vaccination movement has, however, helped spur an increase in whooping cough, measles, and other communicable diseases that had been all but wiped out in the United States.

Nobody actually knows what causes ASD, though researchers have identified some genetic links.

7. It can’t be cured.
In fact, some autism advocates bristle at the notion that ASD is a condition in need of a cure. Others in the ASD community are desperate for a solution to the daily struggles of their autistic offspring. But while autism isn’t a disease that can be cured, it is a disorder that can be treated. The sooner intervention is started, the more likely a child with ASD is to lead a full and satisfying life, which means that early detection is vital.

8. It’s not just about kids.
Though most attention is focused on autistic children, there are hundreds of thousands of adults living with ASD. Once an autistic child turns 21, however, his support system often evaporates. An adult with ASD may be unable to do many things other adults take for granted — like drive a car, sign a lease, vote, or get married. Even high-functioning individuals may need special accommodations and support.

As autism activism increases, though, that’s slowly changing. Organizations like the Washington, D.C.-based Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) are working to protect the civil rights of autistic individuals and to change public policy and perceptions about the condition. The Farms & Ranches Enabling people with Disablities (FRED) organization finds adult housing for people with ASD and other developmental disorders.

Questions, complaints, kudos? Email Dan Tynan at ModFamily1@yahoo.com.