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Embracing Autism: Fostering Understanding and the Rise in Diagnosis

April is Autism Awareness Month, a time dedicated to raising awareness, understanding, and acceptance of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Throughout the years, more light has been shed on ASD. However, there are still aspects in communities that are lacking, such as education on what ASD is and how best to support individuals with autism. Acceptance and comprehension are essential components of addressing the rising prevalence of ASD.

What is Autism?

According to the DSM-5, the diagnostic criteria consist of the following: 

  1. Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts

    1. difficulties in effectively using verbal and nonverbal communication for social purposes

    2. individuals may struggle with understanding and appropriately using gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language to convey their thoughts, feelings, and intentions

    3. difficulty initiating and sustaining conversations, understanding social norms, and interpreting the emotions and perspectives of others

    4. challenges in engaging in reciprocal social interactions and forming relationships with others

    5. difficulty engaging in back-and-forth exchanges, sharing interests with others, engaging in activities, and establishing and maintaining friendships

    6. difficulty understanding and adhering to social conventions, such as taking turns in conversation or respecting personal space

  2. Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities

    1. a variety of behaviors that are often repetitive in nature and may serve as a source of comfort, stimulation, or regulation

    2. behaviors can include repetitive movements (such as hand flapping, rocking, or spinning), repetitive vocalizations (such as echolalia or repetitive questioning), and repetitive use of objects or toys (such as lining up objects or spinning wheels)

    3. rigid adherence to routines or rituals, becoming upset or distressed when these routines are disrupted or changed

    4. strong preference for sameness and predictability in their environment, resisting changes to familiar surroundings, schedules, or activities

    5. development of intense interests in particular subjects, often to the exclusion of other topics. These interests may be highly specialized and involve collecting information, engaging in repetitive behaviors related to the interest, or seeking out opportunities to pursue the interest in depth.

Individuals with ASD commonly face challenges in social communication and interaction across various settings like home, school, work, and community. These difficulties can hinder their ability to navigate social situations, form meaningful relationships, and fully engage in daily life. Similarly, the patterns of restricted and repetitive behaviors, interests, or activities seen in ASD vary in intensity. While some individuals may have mild behaviors that don't significantly impact daily functioning, others may exhibit more severe patterns requiring intervention and support.

The severity of deficits in individuals with ASD varies widely. While some may have mild social communication and interaction challenges, others may require significant support. Early identification and targeted interventions focusing on social skills can help improve their functioning. Addressing restricted, repetitive behaviors is crucial for supporting individuals with ASD. Behavioral therapies, structured routines, and opportunities for constructive interests can enhance their quality of life.

Increase in Diagnosis

I consistently get asked the following question: “Why is there an increase in ASD diagnosis, especially in adults?” and here are my answers. In recent years, there has been a notable increase in the diagnosis of ASD, especially in adults. This has prompted many discussions, debates, and even misinformation (especially with TikTok videos).

First, there is more awareness and understanding of ASD within the medical community and society. As we are learning more about ASD, as clinicians, we are becoming better equipped to identify the conditions in individuals across different age groups and backgrounds. This heightened awareness has led us to more accurate diagnoses, especially among previously overlooked demographic groups, such as adults and girls/women. Individuals may have learned to mask their symptoms to follow the “norm.” Therefore, with more awareness, more adults are being diagnosed with ASD. What I have seen is that many may have been misdiagnosed as a child with ADHD or something else. We are also seeing more women diagnosed with ASD.

There has also been an expansion of the diagnostic criteria. The modification of diagnostic guidelines [outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)] has enabled clinicians to identify subtle signs of autism that may have been previously missed. Moreover, the availability of specialized screening instruments has facilitated earlier detection of ASD, allowing for interventions to commence at younger ages when they are most effective. Some currently used tests include the ADOS-2, MIGDAS, SRS-2, ADI-R, GARS-2, CARS, etc.

Advocacy is also another reason for the rising prevalence of autism diagnosis. These societal and cultural changes have led to the reduction of the stigma surrounding ASD. There have been increased advocacy efforts by autism organizations and more excellent media representation and public awareness campaigns. This allows families and individuals to become more open to seeking evaluation and support.

Fostering a community of acceptance

Each individual with ASD is unique, possessing a diverse range of strengths, challenges, and support needs. By fostering a climate of acceptance and inclusion, we can create a more supportive environment for individuals with autism and their families, regardless of when they receive their diagnosis.

We must create a community of acceptance that promotes empathy and compassion. This will allow us to connect with individuals with ASD on a deeper level, recognize and respect their differences, and support them.

Inclusion is a term that is always tossed around. However, sometimes it needs to be applied correctly. We must create opportunities for participation and engagement in all aspects of community life. This includes education, employment opportunities, and social activities. To make an inclusive community and a sense of belonging, we must remove previous barriers and embrace diversity.

Supportive networks are vital. By connecting individuals and families affected by ASD with resources, services, and peer support, we can provide a safety net of assistance and understanding. Support groups, online forums, and community organizations can offer invaluable guidance and encouragement to navigate ASD. Here are some resources I share with my clients:

The increase in diagnosis reflects a positive shift towards greater awareness, improved diagnostic practices, and reduced stigma. We, as individuals, can work together to create a more inclusive and supportive society for individuals with ASD. For more information about ASD and resources or to book your consult session, please get in touch with us today.

We should always ask ourselves:

What can we do to create this inclusive and supportive society?

Stay tuned for more information that will be presented this month!

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