By: Joshua Stein MD
April 2nd marks the fourteenth annual “World Autism Day” and is the official kickoff to Autism Acceptance Month. This is a month we celebrate those with Autism and reflect on the impact they have had on our world and in our lives. We “light it up blue” to show our acceptance for a neuro-diverse community and their family and loved ones. We wear blue and change our exterior lights to blue to applaud this talented community.
This month, we can also celebrate the efforts that schools, clinics, and communities have made to build access and autonomy for the ASD population. Occupational therapy supports are increasingly becoming commonplace. An increasing number of schools and communities offer Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy to identify the unique needs of each person with ASD and help them thrive in their life. Autism Speaks, PACT Institute, Plymouth Psychology Group, Autism Society of MN, and countless other organizations work to build an inclusive village for those with ASD and their families. The access to these resources used to be confounding and required word-of-mouth clues or hushed conversations. No longer is that the place as we talk openly and have a state the cultivates these approved supports through the Department of Health.
April also allows us to reflect on how those with Autism have shaped the very world we live in. Thomas Edison, Isaac Newton, Carl Sagan, and Albert Einstein have helped humanity understand the world around us. Anthony Hopkins has provided countless, timeless characters and shares how ASD has helped develop his career. Lionel Messi, perhaps the greatest soccer star in the world, is considered to have autism that led to his intense unyielding focus on sports. Even on social media, there is an emerging advocacy and normalization through famous Tik Tok stars like Paige Layle, who candidly shares the challenges she faces having ASD. Those with Autism are often those who have the tenacity and drive to shape our world for years to come.
As physician scientists, we continue to look to the future for advancements in supporting this population. Medical care needs to move past solely treating irritability. Current medications, though often beneficial, can cause burdensome weight gain and physical side effects. New goals of increasing social engagement and cognitive flexibility are emerging with medications that are targeted and better tolerated. The “spectrum” of Autism is increasingly defined by specific genetics and primary causes. We can do our part by enrolling in the Spark trial, to better understand the genetics of ASD, building a database that care and treatment can emerge from.
As a caregiver and physician who has worked with countless young people with ASD and their families, I reflect on the impact they have made on my practice and my life. I feel lucky for the opportunity to celebrate success and face challenges with them on their path through life. As with all children, growth maturation, and finding purpose and joy is the goal. For some patients, this success means college, creative expression, or falling in love. For others, independent living is the goal. At other times, the path is more complex and means hard choices for families in support of the happiness and care of their children. These successes and challenges are why we will wear blue and “light it up” this month. It is why we continue to build awareness to honor the individual needs and triumphs of the ASD population.