The month of April is Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month. Much of the following information came from the website autismspeaks.org.[i]

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication. According to the Centers for Disease Control, autism affects an estimated 1 in 36 children and 1 in 45 adults in the United States today.

Those struggling with autism may also have concurrent diagnoses for ADHD, anxiety, and/or depression and/or medical conditions like epilepsy and sleep problems.[ii]

We know that there is not one type of autism, but many.

Autism looks different for everyone, and each person with autism has a distinct set of strengths and challenges. Some autistic people can speak, while others are nonverbal or minimally verbal and communicate in other ways. Some have intellectual disabilities, while some do not. Some require significant support in their daily lives, while others need less support and, in some cases, live entirely independently.

On average, autism is diagnosed around age 5 in the U.S., with signs appearing by age 2 or 3. Current diagnostic guidelines in the DSM-5[iii] break down the ASD diagnosis into three levels based on the amount of support a person might need: level 1, level 2, and level 3.

Severity levels for autism spectrum disorder include the following:

Level 1 autism (previously known as Asperger syndrome): “Requiring support”

  • Without supports in place, deficits in social communication cause noticeable impairments
  • Difficulty initiating social interactions
  • Atypical or unsuccessful response to social overtures of others
  • May appear to have decreased interest in social interactions
  • Inflexibility of behavior causes significant interference with functioning
  • Difficulty switching between activities
  • Problems of organization and planning hamper independence

Level 2 autism: “Requiring substantial support”

  • Deficits in verbal and nonverbal social communication skills
  • Social impairments apparent even with supports in place
  • Limited initiation of social interactions
  • Reduced or abnormal responses to social overtures from others
  • Inflexibility of behavior
  • Difficulty coping with change
  • Restricted/repetitive behaviors appear frequently and interfere with functioning
  • Distress and/or difficulty changing focus or action

Level 3 autism: “Requiring very substantial support”

  • Severe deficits in verbal and nonverbal social communication skills
  • Very limited initiation of social interactions
  • Minimal response to social overtures from others
  • Inflexibility of behavior
  • Extreme difficulty coping with change
  • Restricted/repetitive behaviors markedly interfere with functioning
  • Great distress/difficulty changing focus or action

There is a blind, autistic pianist Derek Paravicini who performed on America’s Got Talent. Another story is told about a man who has enhanced hearing that led to a career as a sound technician for professional bands. Later he opened a business to service high-end automobiles by listening to the engine’s performance. Another book told of a man whose wife helped him learn how to recognize and improve his social skills. These men function at level one on the spectrum.

A couple in our stake has six children including two sons who struggle with autism. Their need for support is closer to level three. Their mother shared the following.

  • First of all, if you are not sure how to approach them and what to do and what to say, ask the parents. For her boys, say “hello.” She said they like hugs. One hugs back, the other becomes a little stiff, but both appreciate it. And, as their parents, she and her husband appreciate it.
  • If you start to recognize symptoms in your own children, please recognize that it can be hard at first. Your dreams of what a “typical” life would be for your children will be drastically changed. Work together as a couple to adjust expectations, learn about state and local resources, and rely on the Lord. They are His children, too.
  • Church leaders, teachers, and members can find ways to support those families. Maybe it is simply providing special, caring, patient teachers during Primary or Sunday School or Young Women or Young Men classes. That gives the parents at least one hour on Sunday to have some relief as well as having more people in their sons’ lives who care. [I should note that this mother never complained and repeatedly expressed gratitude for her ward and the tremendous understanding and support their ward provides.]
  • To sum it up, she said, “Like most people, these boys just want to be understood and accepted.”

We know another brother who is a caretaker for a man who struggles with autism. When asked how to reach out, this brother responded thoughtfully and succinctly: “live the Golden Rule, treat them like you would want to be treated.”

On the website churchofjesuschrist.org, you can use the search function for “autism” and you will find over 100 articles written by family members, quorum members, classmates, ward members, and others who share their experiences including the following titles: Autism Symptoms – Help for Autism; Embracing Ethan, Accepting Autism; Is My Child with a Disability Ready to Be Baptized; Can someone with a disability serve a mission; Disability Specialists Bless Their Wards, Stakes, and Communities; and many, many more.

If you would like more information or support, go to Autism Speaks Autism Response Team (ART) can help you with information, resources and opportunities.

Find local providers and services in your area with the Autism Speaks Resource Guide.

May the Lord bless each of us to be aware and accepting of all those who are around us. They are our brothers and sisters and we all are His children.

Notes: 

[i] Retrieved 13 April 2024 from autismspeaks.org.

[ii] American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, Arlington, VA., p. 50-59, 2013, American Psychiatric Association.

[iii] Ibid, p. 59.