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.
1. Millions of Children and Young Adults Have Autism
No one knows exactly how many children and young adults have ASD. According to the National Institutes of Health, roughly 1 in 68 children in the United States—nearly 5 million—can be placed on the spectrum. Due to different diagnostic methods and lack of symptom awareness in other parts of the world, estimating the global extent of the disorder is a challenge. But it’s safe to say that millions of children worldwide—likely tens of millions—have ASD.
2. Many With ASD Don’t Know They’re Affected
Because ASD isn’t well-understood in many parts of the world, and because many parents simply don’t have access to or can’t afford quality medical care, many people with ASD (and their loved ones) never learn about their neurology. As ASD awareness grows, the number of undiagnosed cases is likely to fall. But a world in which every parent knows beyond a doubt whether their child has ASD remains frustratingly out of reach.
3. Those With ASD Don’t Always Respond to Their Names
According to the National Autism Association, one of the top symptoms of autism in young children is limited or nonexistent name response. In other words, when parents call children with ASD, they don’t always respond to or even acknowledge the event. This isn’t because children with ASD don’t recognize their names—just that ASD affects their perception of sensory inputs in ways that non-ASD individuals struggle to comprehend.
4. Boys Are More Likely to Have ASD
Many parents assume that gender isn’t a significant factor in the development of ASD. But recent research indicates that’s far from true.
According to the National Institutes of Health, boys are 4–5 times more likely than girls to have autism. That’s an enormous discrepancy, one with profound implications for ASD diagnosis and treatment.
5. “I Don’t Want To” Sometimes Means “I Can’t”
Many children are petulant. Children with autism, by contrast, very often can’t comply with simple instructions. According to Autism Speaks, children with ASD frequently struggle to understand commands shouted at them from a distance or spoken in indistinct tones. The best way to overcome this challenge is to place yourself in front of the child and speak clearly, directly and warmly.
6. Siblings Are More Likely To Have ASD
For reasons that aren’t well understood, siblings of children on the spectrum are much more likely to develop ASD themselves. The National Institutes of Health reports that when one child has autism, his or her sibling has up to an 8 percent chance of developing ASD as well. That’s far higher than random chance.
7. ASD Affects the Five Senses
ASD affects the five senses in ways that non-spectrum individuals struggle to comprehend. For instance, children with ASD often experience temporarily heightened senses—powerful “attacks” of sound, smell, sight and touch. When these events occur in public, the experience can be overwhelming, leading to emotional outbursts or unresponsiveness.
8. Conditions Present Before Birth Contribute to ASD
ASD is a complicated set of conditions caused and influenced by a multitude of factors, none of which are determinative.
However, many prospective parents focus on postpartum causes of ASD, disregarding the factors that may contribute in utero (and even before conception).
The National Institutes of Health cites recent research suggesting that ASD is more likely in two specific circumstances: when the parents are older (35 and up), and when children are born extremely prematurely (26 weeks or earlier).
Again, neither factor—nor any other—is determinative. But as we attempt to untangle the great mystery of ASD, we should not leave any stone unturned.