Becoming aware of autism spectrum disorder

By: Monique Cole

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “One in sixty-eight school-aged children have autism.” April is National Autism Awareness Month, which is dedicated to raising awareness, acceptance and support for people with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD.

Understanding autism spectrum disorder

“To an extent it is a communications disorder when the individual is often not able to read social cues…they don’t read body language or nonverbal cues,” said Madhavi Menon, developmental psychologist and professor.

A person with ASD does not recognize communication traits like sarcasm, smiling or even nodding to show understanding.

Another component of understanding ASD is theory of mind. Menon continued her explanation, “[Those with ASD] don’t really realize that other people are thinking differently than them.”

This lack of understanding can lead to miscommunication, because the person with ASD may have trouble understanding the other person’s emotions, thoughts or why something is considered inappropriate.

The name says it all

ASD varies by person.

“There is no one autism. Everybody with autism actually has a very different type of autism. It’s a variety,” said Michael Voltaire, developmental psychologist, board certified behavior analyst and professor.

Since the disorder is very diverse in nature, diagnosing a patient with ASD can be difficult.

According to austimspeaks.org, psychologists and psychiatrists often diagnose autism within three levels of severity. Level one is described as higher level of functionality that “requires support,” while level three is the highest severity that requires “very substantial support.” Each severity level carries its own challenges, and can be physically, emotionally and financial draining for the patient and their support unit.

Due to the complexity of autism, there is no medical test to confirm diagnosis. Diagnosis is based on observation.

“The only way you can tell is observing…there is no biological marker for the disorder… genes don’t act in a vacuum, they need to be in an environment…it’s not really clear what causes autism,” said Voltaire.

Behavior modification and ASD

While autism can’t be cured, social and communication skills can be improved through behavior modification.

“Behavioral modification basically is designed to teach children or adults with some kind of disability, including autism, to learn certain things usually in a socially acceptable way… So they may not fundamentally understand why it’s not appropriate to say what they have on their mind, but then they can learn the socially acceptable behavior,” said Aya Shigeto , developmental psychologist and professor.

Time is also valuable in treating a patient with autism.

“Early intervention and access to therapy has a lot of benefits for the individual,” said Menon.

However, it is important to note that autism varies from case to case. While improvement takes time, there is currently no permanent cure for autism. The patient may improve their communication skills, but still may never understand the meaning behind their actions.

Autism and college

While autism is considered a disability, it still hasn’t stopped those with the condition to excel academically. Examples include Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison, but what about students with autism who attend college?

According to Shigeto, Voltaire and Menon those students that are coming into college with autism are considered to be “high functioning.” These students are able to speak, read and write.

“If they have a severe case of ASD, they might not be able to function academically very well in a college situation…No matter how functioning they are, you always have this social awkwardness,” stated Shigeto.

Challenges for students with autism can vary; it really depends on where they fall on the spectrum.

“Coming to college there is a newfound independence which is typically appreciated by the typically developing young adult, but maybe not so much by an autistic individual who has usually had someone guiding them…there can be a sense of isolation,” said Menon.

Professors who have students with any disability are notified by Student Disability Services. However, professors are not notified of that student’s specific condition. Shigeto and Voltaire both expressed that some students are “forthcoming” with informing them about their condition of autism, while others have been more secretive about disclosing their diagnosis.

“I would love to be alerted that there is someone in my class with ASD…Now if I know someone has autism I would probably give the person some extra support, like come to my office hours once a week so [we can] talk about the difficulty that you have,” said Voltaire, who has a special interest in ASD. “But I am not asked to do that. I’m only asked to give that person accommodation like twice as much time to take exam[s]. That doesn’t do much.”

Acceptance, integration and respect

While Voltaire, Menon and Shigeto all agreed that awareness of autism has improved, each emphasized that more can be done for greater acceptance.

Menon said “acceptance and integration into society” can help generate more awareness. Not only does integration help us determine what’s normal, but it can also help make people feel less isolated.

While Shigeto agreed that change will come with acceptance, she said there still has to be that element of respect. Shigeto said to “treat them as normal students.” Don’t just point out the flaws or signal that someone is different. Behavioral modification needs be done in a respectful, instead of forceful, manner.

“We have to welcome them. Because there is the notion of neurodiversity. In other words, they are simply different,” said Voltaire.

NSU provides an Access Plus Program that helps provide assistance for students with autism. For more information about NSU autism programs, call 954-262-7129.

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