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Many people observed World Autism Awareness Day on Thursday. This day was an opportunity to celebrate the wonderful and unique children and adults in our community with autism spectrum disorder, and for all of us to learn more about autism.

Autism spectrum disorder (further referred to as "autism") is a collection of differences in behavior and perception. Many of the features of autism are related to social interactions, but other features include repetitive behaviors and differences in perceiving sensory input such as sounds and textures. Signs of autism are usually recognized in the toddler years, though some individuals are not diagnosed until later in life.

Some differences associated with autism include lack of eye contact, difficulty interpreting and using non-verbal communication, such as facial expressions and gestures, disinterest in social interactions, hand flapping, rocking or other repetitive movements, distress at changing routines and sensitivity to sounds or textures.

While children with autism are often characterized as having "behavioral problems," such as temper tantrums, these behaviors are often rooted in frustration with understanding the world around them and frustration with communicating their needs to caregivers. Punishments and consequences do not solve these challenges, as these interventions do not reduce frustration.

Autism is described as a "spectrum" because individuals are affected in a variety of ways. Some people with autism are mildly affected and function well without assistance. Others are severely affected and need significant assistance from caregivers to meet their daily needs. Most people with autism fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. No matter the level of function, individuals with autism have the potential to grow and learn when given the needed tools. Speech, occupational, physical and behavioral therapies are beneficial.

Autism is most often diagnosed by teams of developmental specialists. In Missouri, these services are available in Columbia, St. Louis and Kansas City.

While the diagnosis is most often made at developmental clinics, the signs of autism spectrum disorder are usually recognized first by families or pediatricians. Pediatricians often use routine screening at well-child checks to identify children at risk for autism who need further evaluation.

There is a national shortage of developmental pediatricians to make the diagnosis, resulting in long wait times for testing. In Missouri, providers are using technology to share knowledge and experiences with each other to meet the needs of families and shorten wait times for diagnosis. Some Mid-Missouri pediatricians can perform diagnostic testing in their local offices with the support of an autism specialty team at the Thompson Center.

The cause of autism is unknown in most cases. A small portion are associated with genetic syndromes. There is no credible evidence vaccines are associated with autism.

Individuals with autism should be celebrated and valued for their ability to view the world differently. Strengths of individuals with autism often include visual thinking and learning, problem-solving, memory and attention to detail.

For Autism Awareness Day, I challenge you to learn more about autism and strategies that may help an individual with autism navigate and function within our community. If you are a parent or guardian concerned your child may be affected by autism, visit for resources and discuss your concerns with your child's doctor.

We understand due to COVID-19, many people with autism and their families are being directly impacted by the changes, seeing disruptions in services and coping with the uncertainty of what comes next. The Autism Speaks website offers resources and information that may help. Their page will be updated regularly as new content is developed.

Bethany Crawford, MD, is a pediatrician with SSM Health Medical Group.

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