April is Autism Awareness Month, this week was Autism Awareness Week and Tuesday was World Autism Day.

Autism is vastly misunderstood.

Autism can be difficult to define because Autism Spectrum Disorders describe a wide range of disorders with symptoms that vary in type and severity.

The Autism Speaks organization describes autism in the most general terms as “a group of complex disorders of brain development.” According to Autism Speaks, the disorders can include “intellectual disability, difficulties in motor coordination and attention and physical health issues such as sleep and gastrointestinal disturbances.”

It is not uncommon for individuals with varying types of autism to excel in math, art, music or other areas.

Research has indicated there seems to be no singular cause of autism. However, reports have indicated that genetic research is advancing quickly and, as a result, mutations that are associated with autism disorders are being identified. In addition, experts have said there are environmental factors that seem to contribute to brain development and as scientists learn more about those factors, the disorder may, someday, become more preventable.

Symptoms most often begin to manifest between the ages of 2 and 3 and early intervention is critical in the management of the disorders, according to health-care professionals.

Destigmatizing the disorder and raising awareness regarding the daily management of autism can go a long way toward helping families cope with the associated challenges.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies about 1 in 68 American children as on the autism spectrum. According to Autism Speaks, studies also show autism is four to five times more common among boys than girls. An estimated one out of 42 boys and one in 189 girls are diagnosed with autism in the United States. More than 3 million people in the United States live with some form of autism.

Autism has been called “the fastest-growing serious developmental disorder in the U.S.”

We often fear or ignore things we do not understand that are outside of our comfort zone. We may shy away from people who are different from us and close ourselves off to experiences that could enrich our lives in meaningful ways if we would just take the time to learn about those things we do not understand.

We are all different from each other in one way or another.

However, most of us will never face the life challenges faced every day by the families of children with autism.

Rarely will you hear those families complain. Rather, they generally talk about the milestones they reach and small pleasures and joys in life that most of us simply take for granted.

As a community, we should increase our understanding and be more sensitive to families struggling to provide services to their children while being a part of the community without being looked upon with pity or even disdain.

While children and adults suffering from autism may be different in many ways, in other ways they are like all children — excitable, enjoying life and loving the hugs and encouragement from close friends and family members.

Do not close yourselves off to joys and fulfillment that can come from knowing people just because the challenges they face in life are different from your  own.

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