Study shows autism on the rise

(U-WIRE) AMES, Iowa - The prevalence of autism has apparently risen, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.

The CDC recently published a study saying approximately one in 150 American children has autism. The study, based on 2002 data, focused on eight-year-old children in 14 states.

Geoffrey Abelson, professor of curriculum and instruction, has research interests in autism. Abelson said the simplest possible way to define autism would be to say someone with autism has difficulty understanding what's going on in the world. That person is also often confused about things that are going on around him or her, he said. "I think [autism] has become more prevalent because we've expanded the diagnostic criteria," Abelson said.

Autism research, Abelson said, is largely fueled by parents of children who have the disease. Their voices are being heard more and more, and there is a greater public awareness about autism. "The history of special education is written in the efforts of parent advocacy groups," Abelson said. "But we also have people now in mental health areas who are much more aware of autism now than years ago."

Abelson credits this expansion in efforts to understand autism for an increase in its prevalence.

The facets of autism are still being discovered and explained, and Abelson said there are "various hallmarks" to the disease.

One significant hallmark is that people with autism have social interaction difficulties. Secondly, Abelson said, everybody with autism has a communication disorder of some kind. In general, people with autism also have a "perceptual disorder;" that is, they have a difficult time interpreting the environment around them and processing information through their senses. Because of this perceptual disorder, Abelson said, autistic people overreact and "underreact" in different scenarios - in general, they react differently from how others do.

"People with autism are the least flexible people walking around," Abelson said. "They like routine. They like sameness."

John Hirschman is the coordinator of Student Disability Resources. He said the number of students enrolled at Iowa State who have been diagnosed with autism is very low. Those students, he said, have Asperger syndrome, a mild form of autism. "If [students with autism] come to a point where they're ready for college, they're welcome," Hirschman said.

It helps the student, as well as the university, to know their disability and be aware of it. If that is the case, Hirschman said, students can make it in a college setting.

"We do have some students here with mild forms of it. In the K-12 setting, it's different. In the college setting, we see the ones when they're ready to come here," Hirschman said. Whatever the setting - educational, personal or professional - Abelson said autism is a significant life challenge. "It's not something that kind of comes and goes. It is a severe, lifelong disability. It affects almost every aspect of humanness," he said.