Autism Awareness Month

EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska --

Autism Awareness Month holds a special place in my heart. When my cousin was two years old, he was diagnosed with Autism.

It breaks my heart when people treat those with autism differently. Yes, having autism comes with challenges and behavioral differences, but that doesn’t mean they should be treated with any less dignity or respect as those without it.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recognize that 1 in 68 American children are on the autism spectrum. It is one of the fastest-growing developmental disorders in the United States.

Every person diagnosed with autism is unique. Many individuals on the spectrum have extraordinary abilities in visual skills, music and academics.

My cousin is now in 10th grade and he is on the high honor roll. He is an amazing storyteller and contributes to each conversation with passion.

Currently, there are no tests to diagnose autism, but certain “symptoms” may be evident. Those with autism may experience social challenges, communication difficulties, repetitive behaviors and physical or medical issues.

Infants should start making eye contact, responding to their names and babbling by 8 to 10 months of age. Children with autism fail to do these things. By the time they are toddler aged, autistic children have difficulty playing social games, aren’t imitating actions and prefer to play alone. These are all social challenges those with autism face.

Communication may be difficult in children with autism. Many children don’t start to speak until much later, and many learn communication through pictures or sign language. Some children with autism have trouble forming complete sentences while others may speak in complete, cohesive sentences.

Physical and repetitive behaviors are core indicators of autism. Hand-flapping, rocking, repeating sounds and words and wiggling fingers in front of their eyes are some of the behaviors autistic children show.

My cousin predominantly flaps his hands when he gets excited about a topic he is speaking on. It is a repetitive behavior he has had since he was young, but it doesn’t stop him from getting his point across to those he’s talking with.

More specific indicators parents should be aware of include:

  • No big smiles or joyful expressions by six months

  • No back-and-forth expressions by nine months

  • No babbling by 12 months

  • No words by 16 months

I encourage people to reach out and connect with someone with autism. There is no need to feel uncomfortable, but rather engage them and make a personal connection. The golden rule in my book is to treat others how you would want to be treated.

More information on autism can be found at www.autismspeaks.org.