What Is Autism?

May 2015
By Barbara Vittas, Autism Chairman, Bedford, TX 

Autism and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are both terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development.  Autism is a neurological disorder that affects development in areas of social interaction and communication skills.  The most obvious signs of autism tend to emerge between 12 and 18 months of age.  There are no blood or biologic tests for autism so diagnosis is not an exact science.  Making judgments about a child’s behavior identifies it.  ASD is estimated to affect more than 2 million individuals in the U.S. and statistics show that prevalence rates have increased 10 to 17 percents annually in recent years.  Health officials attribute the increase in cases largely to better recognition through wider screening and better diagnosis.

During the July 2008 National Philoptochos Biennial Convention in Washington, DC, the National Philoptochos Autism Assistance Fund was established.  The purpose of this discretionary fund is to enable Philoptochos to heighten awareness of autism and to provide assistance and support to persons within the autism spectrum.  In addition, it allows us to directly assist families as they struggle to meet out of pocket expenses to ensure that their children receive the critical autism therapies that will help them overcome their developmental disabilities.  In 2014, National Philoptochos Autism Awareness Fund disbursed $14,000 in assistance to individuals dealing with the devastating costs associated with raising a child with an autism spectrum disorder.  Nearly 46,000 individuals and families in the United States began their journey with autism that year.

What we need to remember is that autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects the way a person communicates and relates to people around them.  Children and adults with autism are unable to relate to others in a socially meaningful way and as these children become adults, their ability to develop friendships is impaired, as is their capacity to understand other people’s feelings.  People with autism can often have accompanying learning disabilities.  They face challenges of developing their vocational skills and finding employment as well as developing their independent living skills.

Since National Philoptochos established the Autism Assistance Fund, we have learned much and continue to learn about the effects of ASD.  I hope this summary will be of help in enlightening all to the societal challenges faced in assisting families and individuals in dealing with this disability, and that Philoptochos can take an increasingly effective role with our assistance.