April is Autism Awareness Month. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) refers to a complex set of developmental disabilities causing difficulties with social interaction, communication and behavior. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), autism is increasing in prevalence and now affects an estimated 1 in 36 children in the U.S based on 2020 surveillance data.

Signs and symptoms include delays in verbal and non-verbal communication, problems with socialization and sensory differences and typically occur by the age of 3 and often as early as 12-18 months of age, which is why the AAP recommends screening all children for ASD at 18 and 24 months of age. Medical comorbidities such as gastrointestinal symptoms, feeding difficulties, disordered sleep, obesity, seizures, ADHD, anxiety and depression are common. As it is a spectrum, children growing up with autism face a wide variety of strengths and challenges and no one person looks the same. Depending on the constellation of symptoms, some people with autism can function independently while others may require total support for all daily activities.

Over the years, members of the autism community, including caregivers, advocates and professionals caring for those with autism, have encouraged shifting the dialogue about autism from one of awareness to acceptance during the month of April. Organizations such as the Autism Society, Autism Speaks and the Autism Society of Alabama are spreading the importance of seeing people with autism as individuals with value rather than their diagnosis. Kulture City, founded by DOP faculty member Dr. Michele Kong (Pediatric Critical Care) and her husband, is a nationally recognized non-profit that advocates for community accessibility acceptance for those with sensory differences by training venue staff on how to have sensory inclusive modifications, creating mobile sensory experiences and providing sensory bags for families.

In Alabama, multiple organizations are available to support adults and children with autism and their families, and those listed below are not an exhaustive list. The UAB Civitan-Sparks Clinic and the Division of Behavioral and Developmental Pediatrics, provide diagnostic services and interdisciplinary care for people with autism as well as other developmental disabilities, and is currently taking referrals for children 5 and younger with a concern for autism. Our Division of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics is passionate about serving this community. Additionally, children 3 and under are eligible for Early Intervention. Autism Support of Alabama (formerly the Autism Society of Alabama) is a great start for connecting families with information, resources such as therapy, sensory kits, and family camps. Help Me Grow Alabama can also connect families of children ages birth-8 years old with autism with support services and other resources. In addition, Mitchell’s Place and the Bell Center are organizations that provide comprehensive services to children and families with a range of developmental disabilities that include autism.

Click here to read how to support loved ones with autism from Dr. Sarah O'Kelley.