We tend to think of our kids’ growth in terms of weight and height, and we can count our blessings if our childrens’ development follows the patterns of a growth chart. Unfortunately, there is an ever increasing number of parents who have to deal with a different set of concerns: delays in reaching learning, speaking, and playing milestones, from birth to age 5, can be the alarming sign of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
For those parents and their children, April is a time of hope, hope that through the Autism Awareness Month we will be able to encourage developmental screening and intervention, sustain medical research, and hopefully get closer to finding a cure. Increasing autism awareness is a key aspect of the annual campaign, nowadays more than ever before: a growing number of people, in fact, are being diagnosed with ASD (1 in 68 American children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and although it is hard to tell if the phenomenon is due to a broader definition of the spectrum and better diagnosis or to an actual increase in the number of cases (a tenfold increase in prevalence compared to forty years ago), scientists point their finger to factors (perinatal exposure to environment pollution and advanced parental age in combination with a genetic risk factor) that affect our society today more than they used to decades ago.
As international best-selling author David Mitchell observes in his introduction to The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice Of A Thirteen-Year-Old Boy With Autism, by Naoki Higashida (Random House, 2013), “autism comes in a bewildering and shifting array of shapes, severities, colors and sizes […], but the common denominator is a difficulty in communication.” Autism Spectrum Disorder is, in fact, a group of developmental disabilities (usually identified as autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder, and Asperger Syndrome) that can cause significant challenges in the way people communicate, behave, and socialize. The learning, thinking, and problem-solving abilities of autistic people range from gifted to severely challenged and, although there is currently no available cure, researches show that early intervention and treatment can improve a child’s development.
A valid help for autistic children comes from books. According to a new study out of the University of Cincinnati, “bibliotherapy” has positive effects on kids affected by developmental disorders, as reading improves communication skills and reduces aggressive behaviors. Parents can use books to produce a positive impact on their children’s learning and social issues: usually skilled in numbers, letters, and color recognition since an early age (despite the intellectual disabilities), autistic kids will find comfort in plot repetitions and predictability, as well as in sounds patterns and rhyming schemes, all features normally found in literature suitable to preschool, low elementary grade age groups. ‘Dr. Seuss’ style, if you will.
Books in which characters face challenges, similar to the ones an autistic child has to cope with, can be a great source of ideas for problem-solving activities and stimulating interactions. Also, the parents who participated in the study found that “the strategies that improved reading comprehension, vocabulary, and higher-order thinking skills, would also strengthen their children’s response to intervention.”
The vastness of available literature on the subject, in the form of academic studies, self-help guides, and children’s books, can be overwhelming for a parent who decides to search the web for reading suggestions: a Google search for “autism books” will show hundreds of thousands of results. In this regard, Autism Speaks, the world’s leading autism science and advocacy organization dedicated to funding research, increasing awareness, and advocating for the needs of individuals with autism and their families, will provide you with a comprehensive bibliography as well as a valuable online resource to educate the public and fight the isolation suffered by the autistic community.
Light It Up Blue is the Autism Speak’ s annual global awareness and fundraising campaign celebrated by the international autistic community during World Autism Awareness Day (April 2) and throughout the entire Autism Awareness Month. To read more about Autism Speaks’ advocacy efforts, please visit the organization’s website.