In Plain Sight

Is Autism a hidden epidemic? That is the question raised by this article. While I do not claim to be any sort of expert on the subject of Autism and related conditions, I have over the course of my life observed some things that make me question whether Autism is really a hidden epidemic, or whether it has been in plain sight all along and we as a society did not see it for what it was.

"Once a rare diagnosis, it seems there’s now an epidemic of autism sweeping the nation. Many of us know a child with the disorder, and concerned parents are searching for suspicious signs even in young babies. But while more kids are being labeled with autism, whether the condition is truly more common among today’s children than past generations of youngsters is largely unclear."

Growing up in the late 80's and early 90's autism was not a word that was heard often in my world. In fact, my earliest knowledge of the "disorder" came from the movie Rainman. I thought all people with mental illnesses must be like Dustin Hoffman's character Raymond. I now know that the scope and spread of autism is far greater than many can comprehend.
I do not think though that it is completely accurate to say that there is an epidemic sweeping the nation. I am more inclined to believe that because of the stigma that was, and still is, attached to having a child with a mental disorder, many cases of autism went undiagnosed.

No one had an autistic child when I was growing up. There were people who were labeled as "slow", or mentally retarded, or more disturbingly "stupid". In the same way that children with ADD/ADHD were often referred to as overactive, what we now know to be autistic children were called slow or stupid. It was an unfortunate stigma that remains in today's society. During my time spent in public high schools as a teacher, I had a fair amount of students who were labeled "slow" by their peers, and more often than not by other teachers as well. Having a parent who is a special education teacher has taught me that being "slow" does not equate to being "stupid." I often wonder what the results would show were my students tested for learning disabilities or autism.

Having a nephew who has been diagnosed as having autism has clearly shown me that the societal view of people with autism and related disorders as non functional people lacking intelligence and the ability to comprehend is shockingly incorrect. The level of intelligence that my nephew displays can be very disconcerting at times, considering he has not yet reached his fourth birthday. I spend enough time just watching him to realise that he knows and understands a lot more than you would think a three year old would. It is fortunate that my sister and brother in law were observant enough to take note of the fact that he was not communicating as would be expected for someone his age, and more importantly, that they took steps to address the situation and did not dismiss it out of hand. Could it be that the reason we are seeing an increase in reported cases of autism is that people have stopped dismissing the behaviour as just odd and have begun to seek help for their children?


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