Sunday, December 11, 2011

Autism Articles

As I have mentioned in previous blog entries, I do quite a bit of autism research, always looking for something that might help Alex. Three recent online articles caught my attention with their interesting titles, and yet I found they raised more questions than they answered. The first article, “The Hidden Potential of Autistic Kids,” published in Scientific American, [Click here.] focuses upon the problems of accurately testing children with autism. The author notes, “Researchers have long considered the majority of those affected by autism to be mentally retarded. Although the numbers cited vary, they generally fall between 70-80 percent of the affected population.” The article goes on to explain that traditional intelligence testing involves social knowledge and verbal skills, two common weaknesses in people with autism. For example, the evaluator may ask the child what to do if he/she found a sealed, stamped, addressed envelope on the sidewalk; this requires some social knowledge to realize that one should put it in a mailbox. A language-based test question might be something like, “What do a pencil and a paintbrush have in common?” Analogies such as these are often difficult for children with autism to understand and explain. The author of the article, who has two younger brothers with autism, gives an example of a question used to evaluate her brother in which he was asked what was an appropriate question to ask someone whom he found out was getting married. His “failed” response: “What kind of cake are you having?” [Actually, I think that’s a very good answer!] Considering the obstacles autism poses, the author suggests that nonverbal testing, such as those that measure pattern recognition and logic, be used more often to measure more accurately the potential and skills of a person with autism. I totally agree with her point and wonder why nonverbal testing is NOT used more often. Why are children with autism tested in ways that they are bound to be unsuccessful?

Another article I read this week entitled “’Sensitive Santa’ Meets Kids With Autism,” which appeared on the ABC News website, [Click here.] describes how some malls around the U.S. are offering special times for families who have children with autism to shop. Understanding the sensory issues many of these children face, the organizers accommodate the special needs by dimming lights, lowering the volume of background music, and providing an understanding Santa for the children to visit. In addition, they offer an informational pamphlet for the families so that they can prepare the children ahead of time as to what to expect. The organizer of “Sensitive Santa” at one mall commented, “We will continue to do it because obviously there’s a huge demand.” While the thoughtfulness behind this kind gesture of allowing families with autism to enjoy Christmas shopping is wonderful, I wonder why no one has questioned why so many children today have autism, making these special events with “huge demand” necessary. Certainly autism awareness and acceptance of these children is commendable, but researchers need to work harder on finding treatment and cures so that “Sensitive Santa” days at the mall are not needed. When I was listening to my car radio the other day, I heard a report about how successful “Sensitive Santa” days have been around the country this holiday season. A psychologist being interviewed about Christmas shopping with children who have autism recommended giving them sunglasses and earplugs to wear to help them deal with sensory overload. In addition, she advised parents of children with autism to “plan ahead.” While her ideas were helpful, I found myself laughing out loud at how obvious this suggestion is because anyone who has a child with autism knows that our lives are constantly about planning ahead yet expecting the unexpected. Most autism parents could train the military on covert operations because we can get our kids out of a crowded public place in record time, should they have meltdowns. We learn those survival tactics early through experience.

The third article on my reading list this week entitled “Living Life With Autism: Has Anything Really Changed?” appeared on the Forbes website. [Click here.] This feature discussed the issue of children with autism reaching adulthood and the concerns regarding their employability. The statistics quoted in the article should startle people with how overwhelming the number of adults with autism needing services is likely to be. Currently, an estimated 1 to 1.5 million adults with autism live in the U.S. today, and the articles states that, “in the next decade alone, 500,000 children with autism will come of age.” The estimated cost of taking care of one person with autism is $3.2 million dollars over a lifetime. Moreover, the unemployment rate for adults with autism, based on 2009 data, is approximately 66%, but other statistics show that a better estimate is 80-85% of adults with autism are unemployed. In this article, however, an optimistic outlook indicates more job opportunities for adults with autism, citing three examples of places where the employees with autism have been successful in making greeting cards or testing software or farming. Certainly, these ideas are encouraging, but I question how many of the increasing number of people with autism could even do these jobs. Nonetheless, a spokesperson for Autism Speaks who is quoted in this article, Peter Bell, encourages parents who have children with autism that many job opportunities will be available, advising, “…the sky’s the limit. Always be open-minded. Things are changing.” Despite his positive spin on the job situation, I think the answer to the article title’s question is probably no, considering the unemployment figures given and the limited job resources available. On the other hand, the increasing number of people with autism has changed, yet not enough is being done to help these people get better so that they can work. At a cost of more than $3 million dollars per person, action had better be taken quickly to remedy this situation that goes beyond better testing, “Sensitive Santas,” and platitudes about how people with autism can do anything. Awareness and accommodation are good, but a concerted effort to find answers about curing autism must be pursued.

“You said, ‘Listen and I will speak! I have some questions for you, and you must answer them.’” Job 42:4

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