The CDC recently announced that 1 in 88 U.S. children has autism -- a 78 percent increase in cases from 2002 to 2008.
Dr. Temple Grandin has been dealing with autism all her life. She's written books and lectured widely on the subject, earning much of her insight by dealing with her own autism, a story documented in the recent Claire Danes-led HBO biopic "Temple Grandin."
"If there weren't autism, we'd have no engineers, artists and scientists," Dr. Grandin, whose new book is "Different ... Not Less," tells Metro. "I call it the 'geek genes.' If you look at films of mission control and the people operating the space program, it's definitely 'geek genes' at work there. Autism is a broad spectrum."
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Dr. Grandin names Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein as being among the millions of people within the autistic spectrum, which ranges from mild to severe and includes variants like Asperger's syndrome and Heller's syndrome: "Einstein didn't speak until he was three," she says.
Dr. Grandin didn't speak as a toddler either, but early intervention and therapy meant the difference between being institutionalized as mentally disabled and who she is today: a Colorado State University professor with a Ph.D. in animal science and a world-renowned livestock expert advocating humane treatment and slaughter for farm animals.
Dr. Grandin says autism is complicated, and she thinks it's caused by a mix of genetics and environmental factors such as pesticides, medications absorbed in utero and plasticides. She advocates a healthy diet and supplements such as fish oil to prevent or ease the severity of the condition during early development.
"The most important thing is early intervention," Dr. Grandin says. "It's essential to identify the child's behavioral profile and build on their obvious skills. If they are good at art, encourage that. If they are good at math, build on that. It makes all the difference."
The seven early signs of autism spectrum disorder every parent should know:
By 6 months: No big smiles or other warm, joyful expressions.
By 9 months: No back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles or other facial expressions.
By 12 months: Lack of response to name.
By 12 months: No babbling or "baby talk."
By 12 months: No back-and-forth gestures, such as pointing, showing, reaching or waving.
By 16 months: No spoken words.
By 24 months: No meaningful two-word phrases that don't involve imitating or repeating.
Observing these red flags does not mean that a diagnosis of ASD will be made -- there can be many other clinical issues in play, and in some cases development may in fact just be delayed. Source: Helpguide.org/parents.com
The trouble with today
Autism is now better understood and less stigmatized, but Dr. Grandin thinks modern society isn't a good model to help children with autism who have social interaction and behavioral problems: "Kids with autism who grew up in the '50s like me had less problems because we were taught social skills. We were taught to say 'thank you' and have manners. There's less guidance for children on how to behave these days."