What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are both general terms for a group of complex differences of brain development. These differences are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors, as well as by gifts such as increased visual skills, a heightened ability to remain focused on a task and a refreshing inclination to think outside the box. According to the NIMH, "The term 'spectrum' refers to the wide range of symptoms, skills, and levels of impairment or disability that children with ASD can have. Some children are mildly impaired by their symptoms, while others are severely disabled."
What misconceptions do people have about Autism?
As with any other kind of prejudice toward any other group of people, misconceptions include not believing that people with autism are fully human and worthy of all that typically developing children and adults are afforded by society, including our respect. There is also the damaging misconception that they are not intelligent, when they are often the first to understand certain concepts that depend more on logic than social skills.
There is a concept in the autism lexicon called “mind blindness,” and it refers to a core feature of autism relating to the difficulty of taking other people’s perspectives. This is why empathy in children with autism must be developed by encouraging them to understand others’ perspectives; but ironically society can also be quite mind blind in perceiving people on the autism spectrum.
To choose to look at autism through a pane of understanding wiped free of society's fingerprints might just be a revolutionary act that could end up being the key to understanding its lingering mystery. It is only our personal as well as shared values that separate approval from disapproval regarding anything or anyone we decide to judge in life.
How can we as a society, be more inclusive of people with Autism Spectrum Disorder?
We can stop believing that a person’s social skills are a reflection of his or her character. We now know that many criminals––including serial killers and the white collar kind––have excellent social skills.
In some instances, a person who grows up without intuitive knowledge of how to communicate appropriately in order to connect with others might in turn develop an edge in other qualities such as integrity, creative thought, and the ability to be a truly original thinker––even a visionary. Children with autism are our smallest nonconformists within our shared society, and are quite vulnerable growing up within a culture so overly concerned with conformity and status.
Young or old, we need to look past their perceived differences and appreciate their world view and unique abilities. It is estimated that 85% of people with autism are unemployed or underemployed. That needs to change.
So what can you? Even if it takes us out of our comofrot zone, we can take the time to become a friend to someone with autism, or stand up for someone who is being disparaged because of his (or her) differences.The next time you see a child having a melt down in a public place, don't judge and remind yourself that you probably don't know the whole story.
Assistance dog” and “service dog” are interchangeable terms for dogs that are trained to work with individuals with physical, social, emotional, or educational challenges. In the past these placements were primarily formed for adults with physical challenges such as blindness, deafness, or mobility impairments, but recent advances in this field include service or assistance dogs for children with physical challenges, as well as for children and adults who benefit socially, emotionally, or educationally from the partnership. Once a dog is certified as a service or assistance dog, they have full public access and are permitted by The Americans with Disabilities Act to go anywhere the public is allowed to go.
Therapy dogs on the other hand, have public access in a limited way with the child or adult served during the course of their therapy appointments.
Emotional support dogs can be prescribed by a physician for a child or an adult, and they can even earn the public right to fly in the cabin of an airplane. These laws are in flux and should be checked up upon, as this emerging field carefully draws the lines between a safe assistance or service dog in public, and one that may be a danger or public nuisance to others in addition to the child or adult being served.
How is Autism diagnosed?
From the National Institute of Health:
ASD varies widely in severity and symptoms and may go unrecognized, especially in mildly affected children or when it is masked by more debilitating handicaps. Very early indicators that require evaluation by an expert include:
no babbling or pointing by age 1
no single words by 16 months or two-word phrases by age 2
no response to name
loss of language or social skills
poor eye contact
excessive lining up of toys or objects
no smiling or social responsiveness.
Later indicators include:
impaired ability to make friends with peers
impaired ability to initiate or sustain a conversation with others
absence or impairment of imaginative and social play
stereotyped, repetitive, or unusual use of language
restricted patterns of interest that are abnormal in intensity or focus
preoccupation with certain objects or subjects
inflexible adherence to specific routines or rituals.
Health care providers will often use a questionnaire or other screening instrument to gather information about a child’s development and behavior. Some screening instruments rely solely on parent observations, while others rely on a combination of parent and doctor observations. If screening instruments indicate the possibility of an ASD, a more comprehensive evaluation is usually indicated.
A comprehensive evaluation requires a multidisciplinary team, including a psychologist, neurologist, psychiatrist, speech therapist, and other professionals who diagnose children with ASDs. The team members will conduct a thorough neurological assessment and in-depth cognitive and language testing. Because hearing problems can cause behaviors that could be mistaken for an ASD, children with delayed speech development should also have their hearing tested.
What are some of the things an autism assistance dog can do?
Facilitate Social Engagement
Prevent or Stop a Meltdown
Lower Blood Pressure/Ease anxiety
Redirect Repetitive/OCD Behaviors
Keep a Child Safe from Danger
Give a Child Confidence
Be a Buffer for Sensory Triggers
Keep a Child Calm at Dentist or Doctor
Provide Emotional Support
Encourage Pragmatic Speech Skills
Improve Reading Skills
Enhance Quality of Sleep
Recover a Lost Child Quickly
Be a Buddy
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the difference between a therapy dog, assistance dog, and service dog?
What is the main message of the film?
Your mom was right – ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’ Though people with autism may behave a bit differently (or not…) they are still people with thoughts, feelings, and belief systems. What’s so amazing about dogs is that they don’t discriminate—they don’t see autism, or any other differences for that matter. The bond between a child with ASD and their assistance dog is also quite extraordinary. Children who wouldn’t speak, suddenly feel empowered to speak. Kids who couldn’t sleep through the night for years, are suddenly able to when they have their special dog to keep them company and assuage their fears. Our tag line is “A child who connects with a dog, connects to the world” kind of says it all.
How common is Autism?
Currently 3.5 million people in the U.S. are on the autism spectrum. Today, the rate of autism is one-in-68—an increase of 150% since 2000. One-in-189 girls, and one-in-48 boys are diagnosed with ASD. It is also theorized by some that that the rates for girls may be higher than reported as girls may present differently than boys. Studies are being conducted to further delve into this area of research.
There are many theories as to what causes autism, but it is still considered to be idiopathic or “without known cause.” Genetics is taking a stronger role in recent theories about what causes a child to be born on the autism spectrum, and breakthroughs are being made regarding identifying the genes associated with autism. This will lead to more precise medications and intelligent therapies for the child born on the spectrum in the future.
We are also able to identify children on the autism spectrum at increasingly young ages, which allows for early intervention to widen its window as well as its power and allow us create appropriate environments for our most vulnerable children from their very first days.
Will there be an outreach campaign?
An emphatic “YES!” We always envisioned a targeted community outreach effort and are in the process of developing a Buddy System study guide for educators, parent groups, autism organizations, and post-screening discussion facilitators. However, this is not just a film for those with a connection to the autism community or for dog-lovers, it is also designed to encourage empathy in those who don’t fully understand the realities of those with ASD and their families. We are also very committed to helping families who cannot afford an autism assistance dog by raising money through outreach efforts to provide one.
How was the film funded?
The Buddy System is a nonprofit 501 (c) (3) production. To date we have received contributions both big and small, from individuals and foundations but we are still actively looking for a corporate, foundation, or individual sponsor(s) to underwrite a national broadcast and to further develop our outreach campaign which includes community screenings and funding other autism assistance dogs for children in need. Our fiscal sponsor is The Center for Independent Documentary. All contributions are income tax deductible.
What have you learned from making this film?
I have learned that in some ways, all of us are on the spectrum! We all have idiosyncrasies, social anxieties, and OCD behaviors. Those behaviors and differences are just more magnified in people with ASD. If we took the time to actually get to know individuals who have autism, we might be surprised—and possibly delighted—to see the world through their prism of reality.
Another lesson learned is that it is very hard for adults with autism to find permanent employment and housing. The fact that up to 85% adults on the autism spectrum are unemployed or under-employed, is not acceptable. We can do better. More companies need to step up and recognize the unique gifts and skill sets that these individuals have and understand that they can people with autism can be a positive addition to the work force. I also was reminded that dogs don’t judge! They just want to love you and be loved in return. Dogs are even more amazing than I knew they were when I began this journey.