Independent Study Reflection: Autism

Abbey Cranford, Contributor

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I was first interested in doing an independent study over the summer because I was inspired to learn more about my cousin and his autism. Griffin is currently 7 years old, but he was diagnosed with autism when he was 4 years old. Before that, he was placed into a program at Boston Public Schools that assist children who have clear signs of early developmental delays. At this point, my aunt did not suspect that he was autistic because she thought that children with autism are usually less affectionate, and Griffin was not lacking in affection. However, Griffin was diagnosed at age 4 with autism. Typically most children with autism are diagnosed between ages 2 and 3. When interviewing my aunt about my cousin, I asked her what activities come most challenging to Griffin. She explained that being in a large space such as a theater is very difficult for Griffin because it’s like a “sensory overload,” and she said she attributed this challenge to him being visually impaired. 

Autism is defined as a developmental disorder that ranges in a variety of symptoms with difficulties using communication skills (listening), social interaction (speaking to adults), and often with repetitive behaviors (saying a word over and over). Autism has a wide range of how the disorder affects individuals. Some people with autism can live independently and other people who are affected by autism need today to daycare. Symptoms of autism have a wide range, but all are characterized by challenges with repetitive behaviors through speech, social skills, and nonverbal communication. A few specific characteristics of symptoms can be little to no eye contact, lack of interest in peer relationships, lack of make-believe play, and fixation with an object.

There is no specific medication for autism; however, there are medications that can address some of the symptoms. OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) medication is one used to help with repetitive behaviors, and or SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) regulates serotonin levels (serotonin is a neurotransmitter that sends and receives signals from the brain). Additionally, there are other strategies besides medication that can help. Speech therapy, which is used to treat issues with communication, helps develop skills with social interactions, like eye contact or gestures. Occupational therapy is used when improving fine motor schools, balance or gestures such as buttoning your shirt or holding silverware. One very common form of therapy is ABA, applied behavior analysis, which involves giving positive and negative reinforcements with behaviors. ABA is different for every patient, but every time the therapist begins with an observation about the patient’s natural surroundings. ABA therapy has many strands that are not only focused to help individuals on the spectrum, such as the Autism Strand, The Blind Strand, or The Deaf Strand. When interviewing my aunt, she explained that ABA helped Griffin make huge strides with his behavior. 

There are many myths about autism; however, the most common ones are that people with autism do not want friends, that they can’t feel emotion, or that autism is just a brain disorder. The fact is that people with autism want friends and can feel and express emotions just in unique ways. Other assumptions are that people who have autism are intellectually disabled when in fact most of the time people with autism have very high IQs but just have challenges with social interactions. Another myth is that people autism affects only children, but in fact, autism is something that stays with individuals for their whole life and that children who have autism will grow up and become adults who have autism. 

The source of autism is still unclear, and most of the research indicates that autism can be caused by the environment, genetic influences, or possible glutamate imbalance in the brain. Glutamate is a neurotransmitter that sends signals between brain cells and involves learning and memory in the brain. In one experiment, a random model was used to calculate the standardized mean difference in levels of glutamate and the findings showed that individuals with autism had higher raised blood pressure and glutamate levels. In the study, the researchers came to the conclusion that there is a possibility that high levels of glutamate and high blood pressure might be potential biomarkers of autism. However, research has yet to prove that definitively.

Throughout my independent study, I found some fascinating blogs written by parents with autistic children and people who live day to day with autism. I became interested in reading these in order to gain a deeper understanding of their experience. Here is a recording of a blog (performed by my sister) written by a parent of a child who has autism. I am including this to provide an understanding of a real-world experience with autism. 

Autism is not something that should be looked down upon, nor is it something that people who are on the spectrum can control. So, if you take nothing else from my article, just understand that people with autism are more like you than you may think, and they should not be treated differently for something not in their power.

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