The Real Autism 'Epidemic'

If the word epidemic is apt in describing an unaccountable experience that affects us in a widespread manner, it best applies to those adolescents and adults over the age of 21 who have "aged out."
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We hear so much about autism these days. In fact, hardly a day goes by without some reference to autism in the media, be it a newspaper or magazine article, a television feature, or a radio news story. The focus tends to be on the growing number of very young children -- 2, 3, and 4-year-olds -- being diagnosed on the autism spectrum with greater regularity. Much attention is also given over to research, causes, and cures, though, to date, no definitive explanation for the surge has been put forth. As such, we often bandy about the term "epidemic" to describe what's been transpiring with such alarming frequency that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now suggests one in every 88 children has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. That term, epidemic, evokes thoughts of a plague or a scourge, which autism most certainly is not. But should the word epidemic be applied to autism, the truth is, it has nothing to do with those very young and newly-diagnosed toddlers. It has everything to do with autism's forgotten people.

If the word epidemic is apt in describing an unaccountable experience that affects us in a widespread manner, it best applies to those adolescents and adults over the age of 21 who have "aged out." It is these citizens who have grown beyond early intervention eligibility, and burgeoned past the educational curriculum (or life-skills training) of their school years. Epidemic refers to those with autism who struggle with rejection, misunderstand relationships because of others' lack of honesty and forthrightness, and can't land a job for being different, "quirky," or unemployable. Epidemic pertains to those same individuals who have -- through no fault of their own -- grown up believing all the degrading epithets used to separate "us" from "them." So dehumanized are many of them, they struggle with addictions to nicotine, alcohol, or marijuana; and they all too often grapple with acute anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and debilitating depression. So vicious a descending spiral it may be, that some attempt to end their pain by taking their own lives.

I am aware of one such adult on the autism spectrum who is challenged in discerning the logic of an unyielding society. He shouts and curses his unbearable frustrations as a poet. As an artist and photographer, his angry, violent words and imagery are unsettling, saddening, and deeply disturbing. But it is necessary viewing if we are to fully fathom the degree to which we are creating a culture that produces others like him, culminating in graphic portraits of his self-inflicted incisions carved into his very flesh. He is but one of many.

The escalating epidemic of teens and adults with autism who experience the preceding self-fulfilling prophecy is not a by-product of autism, and is not some twisted birthright-curse either. It is, indeed, entirely avoidable. Those of us who have the privilege of supporting young children and adolescents on the autism spectrum are learning the inside-out perspective: to presume intellect, practice preventative measures, and foster self-advocacy. We are conscious of sensory sensitivities, understanding of the genuine need for self-soothing (not stimming) techniques, and envisioning passionate interests (not obsessions) as relationship building-blocks. This is real, this is meaningful; and these kind, compassionate experiences will be retained well into each individual's adulthood, sustenance to counteract a culture of pandemonium.

Never underestimate the power you have to forever alter the course of someone's life by demonstrating great sensitivity, pensive patience, and a comprehension of opportunities to simply be the pupil instead of the instructor. You might just save someone from becoming an adult statistic of the real autism "epidemic." You might just save a life.

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