8 Autism Facts You Probably Didn’t Know

By Sanjay Shah

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is the subject of unprecedented attention—and, crucially, public and private research funding.

But ASD is still a black box. It’s amazing how little we know about its causes and long-term effects. Even its symptoms aren’t always well-understood.

Even if your children or siblings aren’t personally touched by ASD, there’s a good chance you know someone who’s indirectly affected. As you’ll see, ASD is far more common than many realize.

Whether or not you know someone with ASD, those who do have a stake in the matter are grateful for your understanding. If you have the means to devote time or money to the cause, they will be grateful for your support as well.

Understanding and support begin with empathy. These eight facts might be well-known to those who think about ASD every day, but you probably haven’t given them much thought. Perhaps it’s time.

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Who is Sanjay Shah?


Sanjay Shah is a British-born entrepreneur and philanthropist with an unwavering belief in humanity’s fundamental goodness. After making a name for himself in the turbulent world of global finance, Shah now focuses on making the world a better place for its most vulnerable denizens.

As the founder and leader of Autism Rocks, he spends his days merging his passion for music with his solemn commitment—born from personal experience—to families living with autism. He’s working on some big projects for Autism Rocks, including the launch of a Dubai-based support center for vulnerable families facing autism and the construction of a 21,000-seat performance venue that promises to take the charity’s work—and profile—to the next level.

Shah is active in other philanthropic activities as well. In the past, he has contributed considerable resources and time to Film Aid projects in Kenya and sponsored a number of children through Plan U.K.

A jack of all trades, Shah is now extending his passion for entertainment to his relatively new career as an executive film producer. He knows how to pick ’em: His most recent project, “Under the Shadow,” earned a BAFTA Award for outstanding debut in 2016, thanks to the amazing work of first-time director Babak Anvari.

Born to Kenyan emigrants, Shah grew up in North London during the 1970s. He initially studied to become a physician, enrolling in the school of medicine at King’s College.

Shah eventually decided that medicine wasn’t for him. After withdrawing from the school of medicine, he switched his focus to accounting. His first regular role in the industry was as an auditor trainee at KPMG, an international accounting and auditing firm. Shah credits his training with giving him a respect for the rigorous, detail-oriented nature of corporate accounting—a competency that served him well as he rose through the ranks of London’s red-hot finance industry during the late 1990s and 2000s.

Following his stint at KPMG, Shah took a job in Merrill Lynch’s London back office. He soon gained a reputation for his focus and work ethic and quickly moved up the City’s food chain, taking on progressively more responsibility with Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse, ING and finally Rabobank, where he served as head of derivatives trading.

Like so many other London-based financial professionals, Shah was laid off during the 2008 financial crisis. Rather than see the setback as a defeat, he took it as an opportunity to reexamine his priorities and refocus his career. In 2009, he and his family moved to Dubai, an energetic seaside metropolis far removed from the economic turmoil wracking the rest of the developed world.

Shah says it’s the best decision he’s ever made.

“My heart will always be in London, but I’ve grown to love Dubai’s boundless energy and seemingly limitless sunshine,” says Shah. “My family is absolutely thriving here.”

“Dubai is a lot sunnier than London too,” he adds.

Shah continued to work in finance after the move to Dubai, but it wasn’t until 2011 that he found his true passion—and, arguably, his true calling in life. After what he and his wife remember as a “difficult week” that saw their son Nikhil hospitalized with a violent illness, the Shah family received a troubling diagnosis from the army of Dubai- and London-based physicians and psychologists they’d retained: Nikhil had autism spectrum disorder, or ASD.

The family sprang into action. Once they arrived back in Dubai, they visited the government-run Dubai Autism Centre. Shah was shocked to find the place overwhelmed by demand for its services. Much of the demand came from low- and middle-income Dubai families who couldn’t afford the high cost of behavioral therapy—in some cases, they couldn’t even afford transportation to the center’s campus in central Dubai.

Moved, Shah donated two new minibuses to the center. Though he’d donated to distant charities in the past, this was the first time he’d intervened directly to help less fortunate members of his own community. He was hooked.

Shah began to consider how else he could use his resources to help families in need, especially those living with ASD who don’t have the funds to pay for therapy.

“I’ve long believed it my duty to give generously to my community and to the causes I care about in the wider world,” says Shah, “but I’d never really discussed intentional philanthropy with my family until Nikhil’s diagnosis.”

Until then, Shah’s approach to giving had been haphazard and hands-off: He’d supported charities in India, his ancestral homeland, and no doubt improved the lives of children and adults there. But he hadn’t immersed himself in the relief efforts or spent much time on the ground in the country itself.

Now that he had a personal stake in a worthy cause, Shah saw an opportunity to effect real, positive change. He joined the board of the Autism Research Trust, a well-regarded autism research funding organization. Then, during a chance meeting with rapper Snoop Dogg, the light bulb went off, and Shah embarked on a whirlwind planning journey that would culminate in the launch of Autism Rocks.

Shah envisioned Autism Rocks as a big-name concert series that would raise significant funds to be distributed through the Autism Research Trust. He was confident that the promise of intimate events with international pop artists would convince his colleagues and acquaintances to open their checkbooks for autism research.

He was right. Held at London’s legendary Cafe de Paris, the charity’s first event—headlined by the late, great Prince—drew some £200,000 in donations from 600 attendees.

Today, Shah is looking forward to the opening of the Autism Rocks Support Centre, a sorely needed resource for Dubai families dealing with the challenges of ASD, and the 2018 completion of the Autism Rocks Arena. (A temporary venue, with room for 21,000, is operating nearby.)

It’s been a long ride from the KPMG training room—and it’s far from over.

7 Signs of Autism – How To Tell If Your Child Is Affected

By Sanjay Shah

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), affects roughly 1 in 68 children in the United States alone. Around the world, ASD affects tens of millions of young people. Hundreds of millions of children and adults are directly related to someone with the condition.

ASD is a big deal. And it’s not going away.

Who’s Affected by Autism/ASD?

Autism can affect anyone. ASD isn’t transmissible through person-to-person contact or microscopic pathogens; no one is “immune” to the disorder. Every human being, therefore, can develop autism.

That said, autism is more likely in certain populations. Per the National Institutes of Health, a U.S. government health organization, groups at higher risk for developing ASD include:

  • Males, who are 400–500 percent more likely to develop the condition
  • Siblings of children with autism, though the reasons for this are not well understood
  • Children born to older parents
  • Children born extremely early (preterm)
  • Children with other developmental disorders, such as Fragile X syndrome

Statistics don’t lie, but they only tell part of the story. More so than the causes of many other complex conditions, the myriad causes and risk factors of ASD are not well understood, even after years of research by some of the best minds in medical science.

The signs of autism, fortunately, are better known. Here are seven to watch for in your loved ones.

1. Echolalia

Echolalia is the act of repeating the same word or phrase over and over again. Children with ASD frequently exhibit echolalia, and it’s often unclear what’s prompted the outburst. Though echolalia is superficially similar to the nonverbal obsessive behaviors that many ASD children exhibit, it’s worth calling out as an early symptom of the disorder in verbally communicative children.

2. Preference for Nonverbal Communication

Many children with ASD exhibit echolalia only intermittently precisely because they’re not verbally communicative—or, at the very least, they have a strong preference for nonverbal communication. Rather than speak out about their opinions or desires, they communicate with hand gestures or movements. Sometimes these movements are subtle; in other cases, they’re uncontrolled, even violent.

3. Strict Adherence to Routine or Repetitive Behaviors

Children with ASD are frequently sticklers for routine. Even small deviations from established processes can cause intense distress and lead to verbal or nonverbal outbursts or meltdowns.

4. Hypersensitivity to Sensory Stimuli

Children with ASD are often painfully sensitive to sensory inputs that seem normal to neurotypical individuals—for instance, the smell of car exhaust or the glow of a fluorescent light panel. Parents and caregivers need to watch for these triggers and plan or remediate accordingly.

5. Improper Use of Pronouns

It’s common for verbal ASD children to “flip” pronouns, using “you” when referring to themselves and “I” when referring to others. As with other verbal ASD behaviors, the genesis for this is often unclear.

6. Obsessive Behaviors

Children with ASD often exhibit obsessive, routinized behaviors, such as lining up toys in neat rows or obsessively counting bits of food. When other children are present or when these behaviors are undertaken on a large scale, they can be disruptive, but they’re frequently innocuous and even soothing.

7. Eye Contact Avoidance

Children with ASD certainly aren’t alone in their aversion to eye contact, but they frequently push the preference to extremes. Parents and caretakers need to establish ground rules for themselves and others such that children aren’t unduly disturbed by sustained, probing gazes.

What’s Next for Children and Parents Affected by ASD

For many parents, receiving an autism diagnosis can be a bewildering, even shocking experience.

First, parents need to acknowledge the obvious: Autism is not the end of the world. It’s not even a setback. Children with autism can—and do—go on to achieve amazing things. After the diagnosis, your child might seem more vulnerable than before, but he or she remains the same beautiful being.

Next: information-gathering. As the parent of a child with ASD, you need to arm yourself with as much reliable, accurate information as possible about the condition. The medical professionals who arrived at the diagnosis can help, at the very least, by directing you to the appropriate resources.

Finally: long-term treatment and support. ASD is a chronic condition—a journey, not a quick trip. Know that many other families, including some with whom you come into contact every day or week, are sharing your struggle right now. Seek them out, along with other sources of support. No one expects you to do this alone. And the good news is, you don’t have to.