How prevalent is autism in Australia?
I recently began my PhD in the area of special education and have specifically been focusing on autism. I thought the results from the 2012 Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers (SDAC) released earlier this year were very interesting. It showed that approximately 115,400 Australians (0.5%) had autism. This was a 79% increase from 2009 which estimated that 64,400 people had this condition. If the predictions by the US center for disease control and prevention are right, this figure is set to increase to approximately 1% of the population which is about 230,000 people in Australia. Apart from the change in diagnostic measure (eg. Asperger’s syndrome is now formally removed and placed under the “Autism Spectrum Disorder” umbrella) which may have led to the dramatic increase, I suspect that this change is also because we are more well-informed about the condition than before. But exactly how well do we know about autism?
The reason why I ask this question is because the most common word I’ve heard associated with autism is “disability”. While I do not want to dilute the seriousness of the condition particularly for people who are diagnosed with severe autism coupled with other conditions such as intellectual disability which may impede core daily activities, I think it is important for us to understand that not all people on the spectrum are disabled. Rather, they are just abled in other areas or simply different.
According to Autism Spectrum Australia (ASPECT), autism is a lifelong neurodevelopmental disorder “characterised by marked difficulties in social interaction, impaired communication, restricted and repetitive interests and behaviours and sensory sensitivities”. 4 in 5 people affected by this condition in Australia (very similar to that of the US) are males. However, we have to recognise that the severity of autism is measured on a spectrum. Just as no one person is the same as another, people diagnosed with autism experience various aspects of the diagnosis differently. Someone with high-functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome, for example, may have similar IQ to that of an average person or have no language delay but have repetitive interest in the area of population statistics. Level of social interaction vary from person to person as well with some able to effectively communicate with others, making constant eye contact, while others find daily interactions difficult. In fact, the 2012 SDAC survey showed that approximately 34% of persons with autism had mild to no communication limitation. It also showed that about 49% of autistic persons had no self-care limitation.
While I do not consider myself an expert in this field, I have been inspired by many people with autism who have encouraged me to see them as different rather than disabled. In fact, I would like to end this blog with an article I read about a 5-year old autistic girl who is a talented painter. In the article, her mother was quoted saying,
“Her autism has created a style of painting which I have never seen in a child of her age, she has an understanding of colours and how they interact with each other.”
Here’s some of her artwork (this gallery was taken from irisgracepainting.com):
While she may not be inclined to interact with people, she definitely has a knack for interacting with colours and objects. Would we then consider her disabled or simply different?