April marks Autism Awareness Month

For most people, communication is instinctive. For those who live with autism, however, even expressing basic needs can be difficult. For this reason, and with the goals of “improving the lives of all affected by autism” and dispelling myths about autism, the Autism Society of America (ASA) began National Autism Awareness Month in April 1972.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which affects every autistic child to a different degree, affects one child in 150 in the United States and one in 94 in New Jersey, according to a study done in early 2007 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The disorder is more common in boys and is usually noticeable during the first three years of a child’s life.

ASD affects basic functions of the brain and typically impedes a child’s communication skills and ability to interact with others. Symptoms include resistance to change, difficulty expressing needs, frequent tantrums, and learning and social difficulties. Despite what many myths say, however, these troubles do not mean that autistic children are incapable of learning or expressing love.

“They’re just like most other kids, in the sense that they’re pretty sheltered, innocent, honest and funny,” Rachel Prakash, junior special education and Spanish major, said. Prakash participates in an after-school program at the Eden Institute, an educational organization for autistic children located in Princeton.

Although there is no known cure for autism, organizations like the Eden Institute work toward early diagnosis of the disorder and provide intervention programs, the surest way of controlling autism. The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) also guarantees free public education for autistic children, tailored to their specific needs.

“It is an incredibly rewarding experience,” Liz Beck, junior psychology major, said about working with the Eden Institute. “When the kids run up and hug me, or hold my hand or smile or laugh, it is a reminder that they’re doing so because of the combined help of myself and my co-workers. Knowing that these kids have a place where they are accepted and understood, rather than ridiculed and ignored, makes me realize that, though it can be frustrating at times, it is ultimately worth it.”

During National Autism Awareness Month, many local organizations hold events to promote public awareness of autism and to raise funds for autism research. The Autism Society of America: Greater Philadelphia Chapter will be holding its Eighth Annual Autism Awareness Day at the Philadelphia Zoo on Sunday, April 22. The Center for Outreach & Services for the Autistic Community (COSAC), an organization based out of Ewing, also holds a variety of events during April to collect donations for research and treatment.

These treatments and special programs, according to ASA, should begin as soon as a child is diagnosed with autism, which is done by observing the child in a variety of social situations.

“A lot of them have behaviors,” Prakash said, “meaning that due to the fact that many of them can’t speak or communicate very well, they end up getting frustrated when something isn’t going how they’d like, or they want something that they can’t express, so they end up acting out through hitting, biting, etc. It’s hard to watch that happen and know that they can’t even explain why they’re doing that.”

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the number of autism cases in the United States is growing at a rate of 10-17 percent every year. During the 1990s, there was a 16 percent increase in disabilities in the United States overall, but a 172 percent increase in cases of autism, making it the fastest-growing disorder. All of this is happening without a known cause.

Autism is classified by abnormalities in the structure of the brain and often occurs with other disorders, such as tuberous sclerosis, which causes tumors to grow on the brain, and congenital rubella syndrome, which can affect the structure of a child’s brain, eyes and heart.

There is also a possibility that autism is a genetic disorder, but a specific gene has not been proven to be the cause. Autism is not, however, a mental illness.

Although many aspects of autism remain a mystery, the experience of working with autistic children is, for many, a rewarding one. The best part for Prakash is “knowing that they’re happy. . When they laugh and smile, you know it’s just like when other kids laugh and smile, and that’s a good feeling to see that.”

For more information about autism and National Autism Awareness Month, visit autism-society.org, autismspeaks.org and asaphilly.org.