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EDITORIAL: Early Intervention Key to Helping Youth With Autism

April is Autism Awareness Month and while the prevalence of autism in the U.S. has nearly doubled since 2004 to 1 in every 68 births — and almost 1 in 54 boys — many families, tragically for these children, remain either uninformed or unwilling to take their heads out of the sand.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a complex developmental disability, has no known single cause. But most medical experts insist that increased awareness and early diagnosis/intervention and access to support services lead to significantly improved outcomes. In other words, autism, while not curable, is treatable. Parents who believe autism is something that one will “outgrow” are not only living in denial but are further limiting the chance for their child to overcome many of the behaviors, some which can be quite severe, typically associated with the disability.

Actress Holly Robinson Peete, in the District this week to advocate for increased financial resources for youth with autism, along with her husband, former football standout Rodney Peete, have become a formidable force and voice for families. Like many others, they sought information and help after learning that their then-3-year-old son R.J., now 18, had autism. She’s become an author and advocate, willing to discuss the arduous road they’ve traveled along with the challenges, frustrations and fears they’ve faced.

The popular television show “Sesame Street,” long known for its inclusion in casting, has recently added an orange-haired Muppet named Julia to its ensemble — a lovable “child” who treasures her toy rabbit and is autistic.

Families should be encouraged to know that major breakthroughs have occurred in recent years that can truly benefit these youth — children who Holly describes as “the same but different.” Signs that may suggest that your child has autism include: lack of or delay in spoken language; repetitive use of language and/or motor mannerisms; little or no eye contact; lack of interest in peer relationships; lack of make-believe play; and persistent fixation on parts of objects.

The good news again: help is available so learn all you can. After all, children are blessings — they should be shared with the world, not hidden away in backrooms or closets. We must ensure that they received quality education, access to the same kinds of experiences that all youth enjoy and the chance to become independent adults.

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