By Norm Roberts
Lynne and I took our grandson for a walk the other day and stopped at a small
playground to see if he would like to use the swings. Weston is ten. There was a boy
about his age there who tried to make friends. After several unsuccessful attempts he
asked Lynne why Weston was ignoring him. Lynne explained that Weston wasn't really
ignoring him. He has autism. He doesn't like to speak and often doesn't like to look at
people. But he knew the boy was there and heard what he was saying. The boy
immediately understood and continued playing with Weston, offering to push him on the
swing, accepting him where he was.
April is autism awareness month but at this point aren't we all well aware of it? We know
that one in every 110 children is "on the spectrum." We all know a family that is affected
by it. We've all seen a child like Weston at a park or the mall and wondered at the odd
behavior. Someone whispers "He has autism" and we say "oh." Weston's friend from
the playground knows what it means. What more is there to be aware of?
After over twenty years of exploding incidence rates we still don't know what causes it or
how to treat it. CDC is expected to release new statistics soon. No one will be surprised
if the rate has gone up again. We don't really even know what it is. It's usually described
as a behavioral disorder characterized by poor communications and social skills. A
psychiatrist first identified it in the 1940s and psychiatrists still control the diagnostic
criteria but they don't really know what it is either. They are currently proposing changes
to the standard manual because they think the label is being applied too broadly.
It isn't mental illness. Those affected have suffered some sort of neurological damage
involving not just their brains but their immune systems, sensory perception, often their
digestive systems, even muscle tone. This is a whole body issue.
It is also a global pandemic, though public health officials still don't acknowledge that.
I'm not sure why. We know it's not something one normally grows out of and most
people who have it are under age eighteen. It can't be explained by genetics, improved
diagnosis, or as some have suggested over diagnosis. The census bureau estimates
that in 2010 there were just over 62 million children in the United States under age 15. If
just under 1% of them have autism that represents well over half a million kids.
Something is happening to our children and we don't know what it it is.
If I had my way we would stop calling April "awareness" month and rename it "demand
answers" month. It's time we did and the demands shouldn't be coming only from
distraught parents whose children have the disorder. At this rate we will soon go from a
society where everybody knows a family affected by autism to one where anybody who
has both siblings and cousins will be a member of a family affected by it.
Even if the incidence rate stabilizes we are for the first time seeing large numbers of
these children becoming adults. I worry about that. It is one thing to see a child
behaving oddly in a public place. It is quite another when it is an adult. People may not
be as understanding. Beyond that many of these people won't be able to live
independently and their families won't always be able to care for them. Most of them are
already broke. Public costs will be staggering. We need to do something about this.
Norm Roberts is a retired business analyst living in Plano, Texas. His grandson has autism.