Autism Awareness enlightens community

Kim Hiltabidle

When talking politics, issues concerning immigration, abortion, climate change and gun control are at the center of heated debates among not only politicians but also among friends, relatives and acquaintances.

On first instinct, one wouldn’t think to include autism under that vast array of issues. 

The reality is, autism is a political issue that carries its own economic, social and scientific controversies and problems.

One in 68 children are diagnosed with the complex disorder that can impair an individual’s social and intellectual abilities, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Everything about autism from the cause to the definition can be subject to dispute.

The idea that vaccinations could have a possible link to autism gained momentum in 1998 when the British medical journal, The Lancet, published a paper by medical researcher Andrew Wakefield and 12 others.

For years following, Wakefield’s research gained worldwide attraction. Parents weren’t having their children receive the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine because of the paper’s implication that the vaccine could trigger the onset of autism.

It didn’t take long for the paper’s validity to diminish. In 2004, just six years after its publication, 10 of the 13 authors signed a retraction to the paper’s contentious claim. The paper was later retracted formally as a whole in 2010.

Vaccination levels in Europe, the United States and other countries around the world began to decrease in the years shortly after the 1998 publication. Parents began questioning whether it was worth the risk to vaccinate their children.

Science has time and time again proven that the benefits certainly outweigh any risks or side effects.

“Widespread use of measles vaccine has led to a greater than 99 percent reduction in measles cases in the United States compared with the pre-vaccine era,” according to the Center for Disease Control.

In 2013, a major measles outbreak in Wales occurred. Almost 1,500 people were infected, many were hospitalized and one died. The outbreak has been linked to the short period of time following Wakefield’s research publication when MMR vaccination levels dropped from 94 percent in 1995 to 78 percent in 2003. A majority of the 1,500 infected had not received the vaccination as an infant or toddler.

Wakefield’s research has received criticism for many reasons. Initial success rested upon the fact that nine of the 12 children studied were diagnosed as being autistic. This study has since been criticized because 12 children is too small of a sample to stake any claims when about 600,000 children receive the MMR vaccination a year in the United Kingdom.

Another area of criticism stems from the fact that the age the MMR vaccine is given when a child is between 12 to 15 months coincides with when the onset of autism symptoms are generally recognized. Autism can be detected at 18 months or younger, and a reliable diagnoses can be made by age 2, according to the CDC.

Most scientists can agree that there is no single-known cause for autism. Genetic and environmental factors may both possibly play roles within the onset.

A few things that are known about autism is that the older the parents are, the higher the likelihood of an autism diagnoses in offspring and that the disorder is more common within men than women.

The Autism Science Foundation states that autism disorders “continue to be almost five times more common among boys (1 in 42) than among girls (1 in 189) and they are reported in all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups.”

On the economic side, there has been a great discrepancy in the funding, costs and services to the autism community.

More than half of children and adults living with autism receive assistance in the form of Medicaid, which is a joint federal and state program that provides assistance to families for long-term medical care.

Receiving services for autism through Medicaid has become a waiting game, and the amount of waiting varies from state to state.

Steve Muller, CEO of the Homestead, an organization that works with people with autism, spoke about the discrepancy between the states and how they provide services to those with autism.

“We have 50 states and 50 different plans for how Medicaid will be used to support people with autism,” Muller said. “There’s a great diversity that exists in the services that exist across state borders. If I’m in Florida and I have a child with autism, I could be waiting 15 years for services. The waiting list is enormous. In Texas, it could be 12 years for services.”

That is because there is no single, federal mandated policy on how services should be implemented. The federal government contributes two-thirds of the state’s autism revenue, but the states still hold control.

In 2016, a child wouldn’t have to wait three or more years to be admitted into elementary school, but children with autism might have to wait that long or longer to receive treatment?

“As we look to the future, I think we’re going to have to figure out how America should address this discrepancy,” Muller said.

One subject that has been a hot-button issue in the autism community is finding a cure.

Curing something means ridding it of “undesirable” symptoms or behaviors. To the autism community, a cure would mean ridding a person of what makes him or her unique.

Muller said curing is not something that should be strived for. Instead, service providers should work to provide a change in the functional skill set of those with autism.

“Cure is a hard word,” Muller said. “We help people with autism overcome their challenges but we don’t necessarily remove the way that they view the world. I don’t know that we want to cure autism, but I do know we want to reduce the impairments that people with autism are challenged by.”

Some of those people living with autism can have their functional skill set increase so much that they, in a way, “lose” their diagnoses.

“Helping people develop enough skills that they no longer meet the criteria of being so challenged by their autism that they are labeled with autism is an important distinction,” Muller said when discussing curing autism vs. providing the needed services.

Brandon Arkland, president of the Autism Speaks U club, spoke about how helping those with autism to greater their abilities is one of the most helpful things someone can do.

“I think it’s important to fundraise, advocate and spread awareness,” Arkland said. “But I also feel like it’s important to actually work with those with autism.”

Arkland, junior in child, adult and family services, was diagnosed with autism when he was five years old and knows the hardships and rewards that come along with the disorder.

“It has empowered me to advocate to bring people hope because nothing makes me feel better than a parent coming up to me and telling me that I brought them hope for their children,” Arkland said when asked about overcoming his diagnoses.

In conjunction with April being Autism Awareness Month, Autism Speaks U plans to light up the Memorial Union blue for autism awareness.

World Autism Day is observed on April 2, and the “Light It Up Blue” campaign was created to shine a light on the rapidly growing global health concern.

Anyone can take the pledge to Light It Up Blue on Saturday by wearing blue in honor of the millions of individuals and families affected by autism.