As a society, we are slowly coming around on problems like depression, anxiety and personality disorders. Where depression was once looked at as “having the blues,” it is now seen as a serious issue requiring intervention and treatment. There are, of

course, still pockets of people who look at these issues as self-created, attention-seeking behaviors or excuses for refusing to fit into society.

Fortunately, science is moving in leaps and bounds to understand these issues, and civilization seems to be catching up. Some health issues, however, are not receiving the effort for understanding that they deserve, and chief atop that list are autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

Though representatives with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention report that 11 in 1,000 children in the United States are being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, the prevalence of the disorder doesn’t seem to be helping much with general understanding. This may have something to do with the lack of understanding of ASD’s causes and symptoms even within the medical field.

For those who aren’t sure, autism is a disorder of neural development (an impairment of the growth and development of the brain or central nervous system), usually characterized by impaired social interactions and communication difficulties, as well as some restricted or repeated behaviors. Though scientists know that autism affects the processing of information in the brain, it is not agreed upon as to how this happens.

Most scientists see the chief source of ASD as being genetic, but there is increased attention being put on environmental causes. Tragically, an enormous and false controversy claiming childhood vaccines as the cause of autism has not only misdirected the search for the cause (in several tests, the vaccine hypotheses were shown to be biologically implausible), but has also left too many children unvaccinated.

Due mainly to movies and TV, the perspective on autism seems to be a bit skewed. Many associate autism with the character of Raymond Babbitt from the movie “Rain Man” (played by Dustin Hoffman). In this film, Babbitt displays many of the core symptoms of autism, such as little to no emotional expression, the avoidance of eye contact, and adherence to strict routines (he continually repeats the famous Abbott and Costello “Who’s on First?” sketch). Babbitt, however, is actually written as an autistic savant, a condition characterized by a person with serious mental disabilities (frequently autism, but not always) who exhibits brilliance in some limited field. Babbitt recalls obscure dates, wins money at blackjack by counting cards and, perhaps most famously, counts the number of toothpicks that fall to the ground.

Interestingly enough, the man on which Babbitt was based is Kim Peek, a Salt Lake City man who passed away in 2009 at the age of 58. Peek was known as a “megasavant,” blessed with an unbelievable memory. While displaying many of the regular signs of autism (impaired social interactions and physical abilities), he could read a book in an hour and remember every word. According to some reports, he could “accurately recall the contents of at least 12,000 books” and calculate the day of the week on which people were born. Peek, however, was later diagnosed with FG syndrome, a rare genetic syndrome which causes physical anomalies and developmental delays, not autism, as previously believed.

There is no known cure for autism (though some reported cases exist of children who have recovered), and most children with full autism have difficulty living independently, though many have become extremely successful with help. Thus it is our job as a society to embrace these individuals, and to see autism as a difference, rather than a disorder.

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