When it comes to autism spectrum disorders (ASD), increasing awareness represents one of the most important steps toward effective diagnosis and treatment. Because there is no medical test to identify autism spectrum disorders in children or adults of any age, the diagnosis must be made by psychologists or physicians with special training in the field. A diagnostic evaluation usually involves a team of pediatricians, psychologists, occupational therapists, and speech and language pathologists. Testing for ASD is not a routine part of all children’s early care, so children only receive diagnosis and specialized treatment for autism spectrum disorders when their parents or caretakers elect to bring them in for an evaluation.
Many autism awareness campaigns and outreach programs focus on educating parents about the early signs of autism spectrum disorders and what to do if they want to seek an evaluation for their children. As a general rule, treatments for autism spectrum disorders are considerably more effective if they occur as early as possible in a child’s life. Therefore, many autism outreach efforts encourage parents of young children to request screenings of developmental milestones at each visit to their pediatrician. Even if a general practitioner or pediatric doctor does not possess specialty training in ASD diagnosis, he or she can make a record of a child’s development and refer families to specialists.
When reaching out to adults and young adults with autism spectrum disorders, awareness campaigns typically shift their focus to issues such as employment. A 2012 study published in Pediatrics, found that over 50% of youth with ASD were unemployed and uninvolved with any kind of educational program for the two years following high school completion. This engagement rate was lower than youth with any other disability. In order to improve these results, many autism advocacy campaigns work with young adults to foster engagement with employment opportunities and to provide the skills and training needed to help these youth become successful job applicants. For example, Autism Speaks, one of the most prominent autism advocacy organizations in the United States, organized an intensive internship program in 2013 for young adults with autism that produced really encouraging results. Autism Speaks worked closely with employers to create autism-specific internship and job training programs, complete with targeted supports for many of the social problems faced by individuals on the autism spectrum. 87 percent of participants in the program continued to hold jobs after graduating high school, and many of them earned well over minimum wage.
Aside from their work with employment and parent education, organizations such as Autism Speaks advocate for increased standards of medical care for individuals with autism spectrum disorders. Many campaigns focus on the intersection of medical care and family life, both of which play a vital role in the effectiveness of autism treatment. On the medical side of the equation, outreach programs often set out to increase autism expertise in physicians and encourage doctors to organize layered treatment plans for patients. Many autism professionals argue that a quality medical care system will relieve stress on the parts of caregivers, which creates a more harmonious home environment and contributes to improved treatment efficacy.
At the end of the day, autism awareness and outreach attempt to educate parents about the disorder and improve medical outcomes for individuals on the autism spectrum. Over the past few decades, the medical and psychological communities have made remarkable progress, but there is a lot left to do. In this section, I will take a look at some prominent autism awareness efforts and highlight some areas that still need attention.