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The Facts About Autism

Amy Mikler

When he turned 5 in October, Spike Robinson celebrated with his parents, three siblings, and a pink cake decorated with M&M's and lollipops. It was your standard birthday bash—except when it was time to sing. “Spike asked us to do it very slowly, and in a whisper,” recounts his mom, Shavon Brown-Robinson, who lives in Dania, FL. “And then he didn't want us to cut the cake. He didn't want it ruined.” He finally relented—and then burst into tears. “But he got over it and had a big slice,” says Brown-Robinson proudly.

For most kids, a birthday party is a milestone; for Spike, it was a miracle. Just a couple years before, he hated celebrations. “Whenever there was singing or clapping, he'd start screaming,” says Brown-Robinson. By the time Spike was 3, he was struggling to make conversation and walking on his toes. It was clear he was more than quirky. Brown-Robinson made an appointment for him to be evaluated at the Miami Children's Hospital Dan Marino Center.

Spike was indeed diagnosed with autism, also known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which ranges from mild social awkwardness to sensory problems (trouble dealing with certain sounds or textures) to an inability to talk or take care of oneself at all.

“I was so scared for that diagnosis,” Brown-Robinson confesses, “but the moment we got it, the doors started flying open.”

Before Spike was born, such a story might not have existed. In just the past five years, experts' thinking on autism has changed, myths have been busted, breakthroughs have been made, awareness has skyrocketed, and children are making the sort of rapid, meaningful progress that previously would have been unimaginable. In a couple years, we will learn something new that changes everything all over again. But what we know right now could change a child's life.

Autism is being called an “epidemic.”

Verdict: TRUE

The “A” word is enough to rattle any parent: Nearly two-thirds of young moms and dads are concerned their child will be diagnosed with ASD, according to a recent survey by the Florida Institute of Technology. It's no wonder, given the runaway rates. Whereas 1 in 150 kids was diagnosed with some form of autism five years ago, 1 in 50 kids is on the spectrum today. These rising rates inspired Bob Wright, co-founder of Autism Speaks, to say, “We have an epidemic on our hands…. It is imperative that the U.S. government steps up its commitment to helping people living with autism today.” Last November, the first congressional hearing on autism in ten years was held to determine what the federal response should be.

It's the mystery as much as the increasing prevalence that we fear: Autism has no certain cause or simple cure. It's such an enigma that it's symbolized in awareness campaigns by a puzzle piece. But that's changing. “In the past five years alone, millions of dollars have been spent on researching autism, and we now know a tremendous amount about it,” says Rebecca Landa, Ph.D., director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore.