Maybe you've seen the posters hanging in T and commuter rail stations -- photos and stories of children with autism, and a question: "What does autism look like?"
April is Autism Awareness month and, to answer the May Institute's question, a person with autism can look like anyone.
There's an event to mark Autism Spectrum Awareness Day tomorrow (April 13) at the State House in Boston, from 9 to 11:30 a.m. in the Great Hall. Hosted by Advocates for Autism Massachusetts and the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism, the program aims to offer information about addressing the need for services for adults with autism and insurance issues faced by families of people on the spectrum, among other topics.
Late last year, the Department of Health and Human Services reported that autism was more widespread that previously believed, with about 1 in 100 children on the autism spectrum. The oft-cited link between the MMR vaccine and autism has been officially dismissed, and studies seem to show that now, more than ever, no one knows what really causes or triggers the disorders.
A new study by researchers from the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy at Columbia University published in The American Journal of Sociology shows that children who live near a child who has been diagnosed with autism are more likely to receive an autism diagnosis themselves. How could proximity play a part?
"From shared toxicants, through the diffusion of a virus, as a by-product of neighborhood selection, or through the diffusion of information about autism through social networks," the researchers wrote, adding that "meeting children with autism and having discussions with parents of children with autism could lead parents (of children not diagnosed with autism) to observe behavioral symptoms consistent with autism, to learn how to effectively identify and reach a physician, and to learn how to access and subsequently navigate services and service agencies."
The study took place in California, where autism cases handled by the state's department of developmental services increased 636 percent from 1987 to 2003, according to Science Daily. The Columbia University team studied data from more than 300,000 children born in California between 1997 and 2003, and found that children who live within 250 meters of a child with autism have a 42 percent higher chance of being diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder with the next 12 months. Children who live 250 to 500 meters away have a 22 percent higher chance of being diagnosed, and the greater the distance the less the likelihood of a diagnosis. The "social effect" was more prevalent in cases of mild (or "high functioning") autism diagnoses.
One of our children is on the spectrum (he has Asperger's Syndrome), and I absolutely agree that exposure to a child with autism builds awareness -- perhaps even overawareness -- of the signs of spectrum disorders in other children. It's easy to see how increased awareness could lead to an increase in diagnoses; a generation ago, a child with autism would simply have been labeled "difficult" or "quirky," but now we have a better idea of what to look for (and how to help). Also: The autism spectrum itself has grown to include several things, including the all-encompassing PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified) that would have been dismissed just a decade or so ago.
Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at email@example.com. You can read her other posts about autism here.
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