We are now more aware of autism than ever before. Movies, plays, and television include autistic characters, and a few producers have hired autistic actors. Businesses are hailed for hiring people on the spectrum. And there's a movement for greater inclusion of autistics in the organizations that fund autism research.
This is all good, but as a school psychologist, and the mother of a son with Asperger's, I'm afraid we still have a way to go in understanding the breadth of the wide and wonderful autism spectrum. Although people on the spectrum share difficulties with social interaction and communication, often have strong reactions to certain sounds and textures, and can have trouble with flexibility, no two on the spectrum are exactly alike. This can make it difficult to identify autism spectrum disorder, and therefore many children and adults go undiagnosed for years instead of receiving early therapies, when many of those do the most good. We need to have a better understanding of the range of the spectrum, so that those with milder, or even hidden, difficulties can still get the services they need. We need to be aware of how girls on the spectrum can be very different from the boys.
Research has found that many children are diagnosed with ADHD years before they finally get the autism diagnosis. Every year, I see middle school and high school students who clearly fall somewhere on the spectrum but whose parents or physicians still hold onto what I call a salad diagnosis: a handful of ADHD, a dash of obsessive compulsiveness, a sprinkling of pragmatics disorder, dressed with anxiety, and with a side of stubbornness. A few years ago, a doctor told me a student at our school was "not Rain Man!" because the student was not a savant with echolalia.
We are now way beyond Rain Man, and we need to understand that if you've seen one person with autism, you've seen one person with autism. Now it's time to move beyond awareness and get to work.
With a Perspective, I'm Anne Ross.
Anne K. Ross is a school psychologist and the author of a new book about autism