Light it up Blue for autism awareness Imagine having a child who rarely gives a hug, never cries, never makes eye contact, never says “I love you.” This heartbreaking thought is an all-too-common reality for parents of autistic children.
Kelly Steagall is the parent of an autistic son. She adopted Sam five years ago at the age of 9. She had not seen or heard public service announcements on autism. It wasn’t a household word. But she’s hoping it will be thanks to the efforts of an organization called Autism Speaks.
“This organization developed the Light It Up Blue campaign three years ago to increase awareness of autism,” said Steagall. “It’s as simple as replacing the bulb on your front porch light to a blue one. The more blue light bulbs that are out there the more people will begin to ask questions. I’m really excited to see light up blue, that not only brings awareness to the issue, but also shows parents with autistic children they are not alone.”
Ste. Genevieve County Memorial Hospital, for one, replaced the light bulbs along the front of the hospital with blue ones, and hopes other businesses and individuals will follow suit. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one of every 110 newborns in America has a form of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and it’s believed that one in 70 boys is born with it. The fact that children with autism have no outward visible signs of the disease makes it that much harder for people to accept that there’s a problem.
“Autism is a communication disorder,” said Dr. Bhargav Kanani, Pediatrician at Ste. Genevieve County Memorial Hospital. “There’s nothing physically wrong with the child or anything wrong with the brain. They’re the same as you or I. It’s characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and stereotypical behaviors, like hand flapping, rocking, or the child appearing to be in his or her own world. ASD affects each child differently.”
Dr. Kanani explained that autism has no single, known cause.
“Given the complexity of the disease, the range of autistic disorders and the fact that no two children with autism are alike, there are likely many causes, but childhood vaccines are not among them,” he said. "One of the greatest controversies in autism is centered on whether a link exists between autism and certain childhood vaccines, particularly the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine. No reliable study has shown a link between autism and the MMR vaccination. Avoiding childhood vaccinations can place your child in danger of catching serious diseases, including whooping cough (pertussis), measles or mumps.”
Diagnosing ASD can be harder because of the complexity of the disorder. “Of course with a very, very young child it’s hard to tell,” he said. “Over the age of one, you may begin to see some traits. But you have to be careful and rule out disorders like Retts syndrome before you give a disgnosis of autism. One thing is certain, the earlier you can start interventions—meaning therapies, not medication, the better the outcome. It’s hard to tell parents their child has autism. They don’t want to hear it, but you have to accept it, rather than shy away from it.”
Steagall said early interventions is the key.
“I can only speculate that if my son had had opportunities for intervention when he was very young, he may have had a different outcome,” she said. “In rural areas, especially, parents struggle to have services for children with autism. The thing to remember is that these autistic children become autistic adults. This doesn’t go away. To make them functioning adults requires a great deal of therapy.”
Steagall said she spends approximately three hours every night with her son on homework alone.
“If we didn’t teach him, he wouldn’t learn,” she said. “It’s very hard on a family. The bullying that these kids get is awful, too. My son can’t ride the school bus. Other children just don’t understand, because autistic kids typically don’t look any different. Some people think he’ll just grow out of it, but that doesn’t happen. With autistic children you have to teach them and repeat, repeat, repeat. You really have to be dedicated. It can be exhausting. But if parents don’t advocate for their children nobody will.”
Steagall hopes that during the month of April, Autism Awareness Month, that’s kicked off with the Light It Up Blue campaign, more people will be educated about the disorder. Visit www.autismspeaks.org
for a wealth of information on the subject.
“More children will be diagnosed with autism this year than with childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes or pediatric AIDS combined,” she said. “You probably know a child with autism—a grandchild, a niece, a nephew, neighbor. Changing a light bulb is not hard to do, but if that light bulb can change a life that’s heroic.”