April is National Autism Month

April is National Autism Awareness month. Autism is a developmental disability that has not only come out of the closet, but has jumped out at us from the TV screen and film. We all loved “Forest Gump” and “The Rainman” when we got to know them, and for years, Sheldon Leonard of “The Big Bang Theory” has demonstrated some autistic tendencies that make life very interesting.

While the show’s producers don’t want to officially label Sheldon’s as autistic, they acknowledge that he demonstrates some common autistic characteristics such as being attached to habits, inability to know when someone is being sarcastic or humorous at times, and a disconnect from intimacy. But he’s brilliant and fun when he operates within his order, and his friends understand that, although they might roll their eyes at yet another “Sheldonism.”

A new TV show, “Scorpion” features character Walter O’Brien as a brilliant problem solver and computer genius who is on the autistic spectrum, as is Ralph, Paige’s son. They can focus on problems at hand without a lot of the drama that others have. But it also shows the difficulty that Walter has with relationships. His idea of humor is not like anyone else’s. He doesn’t feel emotions the way that normal people do. But he does feel them.

At a Department of Education-sponsored workshop on working with autistic children in the public schools, I was shown a film that used humor to help demonstrate the difficulties that Asperger’s disorder children might experience. It shows two Asperger’s students in conversation. One asks, “How are you feeling?” The other replies, “I don’t know, how am I feeling?”

What makes it difficult is that autism characteristics can range from being very debilitating such as being non-verbal and unresponsive to outer stimulation, to being a mostly normal seeming person with a few unusual characteristics and a need to plan well.

That is why it is referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder. There are no bodily disfigurations, so it makes children more at risk for being bullied than children whose physical disabilities are obvious.

The US Center for Disease Control has a website on Autism spectrum disorder. A few things they suggest that children or adults with ASD might:

w not point at objects to show interest

w have trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own feelings

w appear to be unaware when people talk to them, but respond to other sounds

w not play “pretend” games

w lose skills they once had

There’s no medical test, like a blood test, that diagnoses ASD. Doctors look at the child’s behavior and development to make a diagnosis. Diagnosis of ASD can be reliably made by an experienced professional by age two.

From my professional experience, I would plea to parents that if their children seem to have some of the above symptoms that they have their children screened. As a mother of a “special needs” child, I know that there is the thought that maybe the diagnosis would be a limitation. Parents can see the intelligence in the child, with no physical disabilities, so they assume that they aren’t disabled.

Instead, choose to see a diagnosis as a ticket to get help, and the sooner the better. Professionals refer to the brain as being “plastic” or able to be changed, and it is most plastic during the very young years. By age seven, the brain is less plastic and it becomes more difficult to work with a child who has certain habits entrenched.

There are now many “tried and true” behavioral therapies and techniques. They are referred to as “best practices” in industry talk. If children don’t talk, there are devices they can use to communicate. Helpers make lists for children to remind them of what to do at what time helps them organize their days. Or they teach them specific phrases to use when they are with people, or how to follow a person’s eyes when they are looking at something and talking about it.

There’s some very good news about getting services, according to Christina White, associate director of Bayada Home Care. We’ve all heard of re-habilitation. That’s helping someone do what they used to do. Habilitation helps them learn how to do it in the first place.

She says, “Autism is a very common developmental disability. The increase in prevalence can be attributed to early detection and diagnosis. A huge development in Hawaii this year was the implementation of autism based insurance services. Eligible children with autism can now receive behavior analytic services that are evidence based through their insurance company, a first for Hawaii! I encourage families to reach out to their pediatricians to learn more about these services and what early detection can do for individuals with autism.”

It helps to work with professionals. They know what works. The parents of my students were so grateful when they began learning how their children functioned and how they could help them.

A great true-life story about a healing from autism started in the book “Son Rise,” by Barry Kaufman in 1976 about his son Raun who was a normally functioning boy until he turned two. He then manifested ASD symptoms. Professionals couldn’t reach him, so they figured his IQ was 30, and that there was no good future in sight.

Barry and his wife Samarhia Lyte Kaufman didn’t accept the diagnosis and sought treatment, finally creating one of their own. Back then only about 1 in 5,000 were diagnosed autistic, and treatments were not scientifically studied yet. They founded the Option Institute. Through Samarhia’s continued acceptance and love, Raun began to connect with her. Raun graduated from Brown University with a degree in Biomedical Ethics, was the former CEO of the Autism Treatment Center of America, and now conducts seminars worldwide. The NBC TV movie, :”Son-Rise: A Miracle of Love,” depicts the early successes.

So this month, let’s appreciate those of us with autism. Many are geniuses who have contributed to our world scientifically and artistically, to name just two ways. Instead of asking “How do you feel?” You might say, “It’s good to see you!”


Hale ‘Opio Kaua’i convened a support group of adults in our Kauai community to “step into the corner” for our teens, to answer questions and give support to youth and their families on a wide variety of issues. Please email your questions or concerns facing our youth and families today to Annaleah Atkinson at aatkinson@haleopio.org For more information about Hale ‘Opio Kauai, please go to www.haleopio.org


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