Tuesday, April 8, 2008

World Autism Day promotes awareness

A resolution by the United Nations in November 2007 established World Autism Day on April 2 of each year. The resolution was introduced by the nation of Qatar and World Autism Day was celebrated this week for the very first time.

Autism is estimated to affect 35 million people worldwide according to Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, permanent representative of Qatar to the U.N. Suzanne Wright, a co-founder of the group Autism Speaks, said that 1.5 million people have autism in the United States and that a new child is diagnosed with it every 20 minutes.

I am a person with Asperger Syndrome (AS), which is on the autism spectrum, so Wednesday, April 2, marked a special holiday. I am encouraged by this attention to autism because it promotes increased understanding of autism world-wide.

I love our special ribbon of interlocking puzzle pieces in blue, yellow and red. They reflect an understanding that “autism” encompasses a spectrum of behaviors and tendencies. No two of us are the same.

But just as these colorful pieces all closely interlock, we have many shared traits and experiences.

Discovery of these traits -- both the strengths and weaknesses -- has been my exciting journey during the previous year.

Thirty-five years ago, my inability to socialize may have alarmed my parents and teachers but no one was looking for “autism” in my inability to make social connections. That my classmates unmercifully bullied me raised no alarms or red flags.

My advanced vocabulary was a trait that set me apart from other students my age. It was far easier to talk with my teachers than with my classmates.

No one looked for “autism” in my physical clumsiness and the intensity of sensory impressions. Bright lights can aggravate my eyes and I am acutely sensitive to sounds that other people ignore. I tend to focus on fine details, which I’ve channeled into costume design -- mainly for my family and me.

Today I know that these -- and several other gifts and challenges -- are experiences that I share with many people who are on the autism spectrum. Once I learned about AS, everything made total sense.

This is why I am optimistic -- instead of alarmed -- to read that diagnosis of autism has increased. I believe it represents a greater understanding rather than increased occurrences.

“Autism” has gone in my lifetime from limited and specific criteria that disqualified many individuals to criteria that acknowledges a spectrum of traits and degrees of severity. We are seeing more cases of autism because we are learning where and how to look.

We are recognizing signs of autism that were previously overlooked or were mistaken for something else.

With recognition comes understanding and identification of strategies to cope with some of my challenges. The more I know about types of communication that may limit my understanding, the more readily I can ask questions to clarify a meaning that’s unclear.

One of the most significant ways I think we can all make a difference is to promote equitable insurance coverage. Treatments and interventions must not remain out of reach just because autism is not considered “medical.”

U.S. Congressman Mike Thompson is co-sponsoring legislation that requires mental-health and addiction-treatment parity in coverage by health insurance (H.R. 1424). Please join me in thanking him and encourage his continued support.

Please urge similar state legislation from Assemblymember Patty Berg and State Senator Patricia Wiggins. Demand that any candidates who aspire to hold these offices, make health insurance parity part of their campaign platforms.

We also need to remember that children with autism grow up. Are vocational programs up to the task of helping autism-spectrum adults deal with challenging aspects of finding and keeping employment? Or successfully managing a household?

In the spirit of World Autism Day, we all occupy places on a spectrum that encompasses our gifts and challenges. Let’s try to help each and every one of us maximize our full potential -- whether or not there’s a label that applies.

Published April 8, 2008 in the Lake County Record-Bee

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