Thursday, November 24, 2011

Autism in America

Autism has always been a tough issue to talk about because, many times, people do not understand what autism really is and how it works. A recent shift in media has showcased autism and its effects. Television shows such as Parenthood, have dedicated entire episodes to the issues that children with autism, such as the character Max, face while growing up. Washington has also taken notice and has created legislation that allows research about autism to continue. Most recently, President Obama signed a new piece of legislation that will let autism research continue for the next three years. The original law was passed in 2006, but expired last week. The Combating Autism Reauthorization Act of 2011 will provide researchers $231 million to continue their work and hopefully find better solutions to help our autistic children.

Autism, which was first recognized in 1943, is an assortment of communication, social and behavioral disorders. At its worst, it can leave a child trapped in an unsolvable shell; however, a large number of autistic people are high-functioning have the ability to make tremendous strides through treatment. Some of the frequent characteristics of autism are behavior social skill deficits, limited interest and repetitive behavior. Still, scientists don't know exactly what causes it - genetics alone?, a virus or a toxin? - or why the numbers continue to skyrocket.

Autism has been on the rise within the past decade and for reasons that are unknown. Today, just about 1 in 110 American children have an autism spectrum disorder; however in the 1990s the rate of autism was about 5 in 10,000 people. According to Autism Speaks, autism is now "more common than childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes and pediatric AIDS combined." Some researches believe that the rise in numbers links to changes in diagnostic criteria and better diagnosis over the years, but the increase is still too dramatic for that to be the only cause. Another possibility, which is highly controversial, is the debate over the etiology centers on vaccines. Suspicion about childhood vaccines rose because young children frequently exhibit autistic behaviors around 18 months of age, after receiving the shots. Nothing has been officially proven, however, so researchers are continuing to work hard to find an answer.

So when it comes to education, what options does a person with autism have? Well, it really depends on the severity of the autism. If a child is low-functioning, then parents may chose to put him or her in a special education school where that child can receive individualized help both academically and socially. If the child is high-functioning then he or she could be fine at a main-stream school. The biggest factor that almost all autistic children need, no matter what type of school they are in, is a structured learning environment. The child needs clear expectations, as well as a routine. The child should also stay away from high anxiety environments that may cause them to become stressed and have an aggressive or explosive behavior outburst.

Like almost all students, autistic students all learn at their own pace and must have customized learning plans to help them reach their highest potential. Many times, autistic children undergo one-on-one learning with teachers and para-professionals that are specifically trained in autistic education. The problem is that if a school does not have those resources then parents are often responsible for covering the costs on the one-on-one learning and it is not cheap.

However, as autism awareness grows, so do the number of resources. There are now a number of schools specifically designated for children with autism. These schools have teachers and staff who are specifically trained to help children with autism, no matter how severe it is. The schools are designed for students who have not been mainstreamed. These schools are now popping up in almost every state and have the ability to help autistic children not just academically, but also socially and emotionally.

Another resource for children with autism is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). ABA is a data-driven method of instruction that highlights the break down of skills into their component parts and teaching students by means of a variety of prompting and positive reinforcement. Each specific skill is considered mastered only after the data confirms that conclusion. By constructing associated skills in a corresponding manner, ABA has been proven to have the physical effect of "re-wiring" brain circuitry in people with autism of all ages. In other words, if the therapy is completed the right way it results in actually teaching the child "how to learn."

Even though we may not have a cause or a cure of Autism, the growing support for research has given the autistic community hope for the future. The increasing numbers of resources for autistic students in school, as well as the attention form the federal government will bring this country that much closer to solving this puzzle.

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