What is Autism – Supporting Parents and Families with an Autistic Child (pt. 1)

Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a developmental disability that effects millions of children and their families. Many of us are familiar with autism from children that we knew growing up, neighbors and relatives, or from characters in movies, books, or TV. Families that have a child with autism know that there is often a lack of understanding from others on what autism really is. The experience of having a child with autism is usually a huge source or stress to parents and siblings in the child’s family. The purpose of this collection of articles (parts one and two) is to share some useful information about autism, raise awareness of how to support parents and families who have a child with autism, and to share some helpful resources to these parents.

Part One: What is Autism?

In 2016, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) issued the newest report, showing that the rate for children with autism in the United States is 1 child in every 68 births. Boys are 4 ½ times more likely to have autism than girls. Children with autism grow, learn, and have individual interests like other children, but they think in a different way. Some are “high functioning” and may have regular or high intelligence, but lack the ability to communicate, understand social cues, and express themselves like other people. Others are lower functioning and exhibit delays in intelligence. The CDC estimates that a third of children with autism also have an intellectual disability, based on available data.

Autism is referred to as a “spectrum disorder”, because autism affects individual children in a wide variety of ways and different levels of severity. One child with autism may display very different behaviors and symptoms from another child. Many children with ASD have very focused interests and may “obsess” over a certain activity or topic. They can be very friendly and loving, or they may not show any interest in interacting with people at all. Individuals with ASD often have a hard time understanding sarcasm. The symptoms of autism are usually apparent before the age of three. The earlier autism is diagnosed, the more a child can benefit from early intervention and treatment. Some early signs of autism in a young child are:

  • Significantly delayed speech, or a loss of speech skills that were previously developed.
  • Lack of interest in social relationships, difficulty with social interaction, lack of eye contact.
  • Self-stimulatory behavior or repetitive behaviors, such as rocking back and forth or walking in circles.
  • Increase in tantrums, discomfort with sensory processing- extra sensitivity to sight, sound, and smells.

For a guide to typical developmental milestones for infants and young children, visit https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/milestones/index.html.

Diagnosis of autism should be thoroughly completed by a medical team if there is a suspicion that autism is present. A delay in a certain area of development does not necessarily mean a child has autism, rather several screening tests are used to determine diagnosis.

Children with autism are more likely to also suffer from other health problems such as: sleep irregularity, anxiety, epilepsy, difficulty with eating, ADHD, depression, and gastrointestinal problems.

There is no known single cause for why autism occurs. Research is being done investigating the genetics, environmental substances, problems during pregnancy, and other possible factors behind autism. Brain scans show that there are abnormalities in the brains of children with autism that are not present in normal brains.

Because autism is so varied for different children and families, finding the right treatment for an individual child is varied as well. Children with autism can grow and enjoy life and become contributing, unique members of society, especially when they receive the right help. Early intervention, community support programs, and speech and occupational therapy are common therapy providers. School-age children with autism usually receive an Individual Education Plan (IEP) to set goals for their developmental needs, and may participate in regular classrooms with special supports or in a special education classroom. There are special private schools, which are specific for children with autism, as well.

See Part 2 of this article for guidelines in helping parents with children with autism and finding resources for support.


Autism Society (2016) What is autism. Retrieved from:http: //www.autism-society.org/what-is/causes/

Autism Speaks Inc. (Apr. 26, 2017). Autism and health: a special report by autism speaks. Retrieved from: https://www.autismspeaks.org/science/science-news/autism-and-health-special-report-autism-speaks

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Dec. 5, 2016). Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/addm.html

Williamson, S.A, (2009) Approaching autism: a qualitative review of maternal and familial adaptation among families of children with autism. In All Theses and Dissertations. Retrieved from: http://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2872&context=etd

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