By now, Cecil Ennett is used to the questions people ask about his 5-year-old son, Cameron, who has autism: Why is he so bad? Why doesn’t he listen? Is he like Rainman? And the worst: Is he retarded?
Cameron is one of more than 3,000 Arkansas children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, and while that number has more than tripled in the past 15 years, many people still don’t really understand what autism is — and what it isn’t.
“I try to explain what it is and why it is — that typically they’re much smarter than we give them credit for, but their thought process is completely different,” Ennett said. “If our thought process is going at 40 miles per hour, theirs is going at 110.”
One of the most common misconceptions about autism is that all children with autism are the same. In fact, autism includes a group of developmental brain disorders — including “classic” autism and Asperger’s syndrome — now usually referred to as autism spectrum disorders. People who are on the autism spectrum can have a wide range of symptoms, abilities and disabilities.
“The phrase ‘If you’ve see one child with autism, you’ve seen one child with autism’ is absolutely true,” said Mary Garlington, an occupational therapist and supervisor of the autism classroom at the Pediatrics Plus developmental preschool in Conway.
Another common misconception is that autism is a mental illness or a behavioral disorder — all about flapping hands or head-banging.
“Autism itself is a neurological disorder,” Garlington said. “Usually the behavior comes out of something — it’s a self-regulatory behavior the child has learned due to the autism.”
People with autism process information differently, she said, and that makes it very difficult for them to relate to other people.
“They’re so in their own head, trying to take in this whole huge world that doesn’t have any meaning to them,” she said.
Children with autism spectrum disorders vary widely in terms of their intellectual abilities, she said, but they all share a common problem with the wiring in their brains — some areas are under-connected and others are over-connected.
Children on the autism spectrum sometimes get labeled as “bad” or oppositional, said Jayne Bellando, an associate professor and pediatric psychologist at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. About 30 percent of children on the spectrum are also diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder, but for many of the others, their behavior is simply an outgrowth of their autism.
“For some of these youngsters, because they have language delays they’re going to have a meltdown because they can’t say what they need or want,” Bellando said. “Or if they have problems moving from one activity to another, they’re going to have a meltdown.”
People often assume that individuals with autism can’t communicate, said Julia Washburn, executive director of Helping Hand, which provides therapy and other services to children with autism and other developmental disorders.
“They can and they do, in many different ways,” she said — verbally, nonverbally, through sign language and visual systems, such as the Picture Exchange System.
Despite the biases and misunderstandings he sometimes confronts, Ennett said he doesn’t shy away from taking his family shopping or out to eat.
“As a parent, I have to learn to deal with it, which is why we work at taking him out,” Ennett said. “My goal is for him to be a productive member of society. He can’t do that if we always keep him at home because we’re afraid of what he might encounter or what people might say.”