Zoo Miami, a friendly place for children with autism 3:56
In many ways, Kevin "Knox" Johnson III is like most 8-year-olds.
Enjoy building tracks for marble races.
He is obsessed with knock-knock jokes.
At school, he excels in math and language learning.
He also likes to sing in musicals and dreams of sharing the beats he makes in GarageBand with the world.
But the Baltimore boy is different from other children in one important way: He has autism, and his mother says he sees it as a superpower.
Jennifer White-Johnson with her 8-year-old son Kevin "Knox" Johnson III who is a person with autism.
"My son is cheerful and quirky, and he's always fun to be around," says Jennifer White-Johnson, Knox's mother.
"From the beginning of his life, I have worked to ensure that I am giving him the tools to trust his identity and be comfortable with his unique abilities, his differences, and the beauty of who he is." .
Although the Johnson family celebrates autism every day, the celebration is especially meaningful on April 2, World Autism Awareness Day.
It is an event that promotes awareness of the existence of autism and the approximately 4 million people with autism in the world.
For some members of the autistic community, the day also kicks off a month-long campaign for greater acceptance and appreciation of autism.
On Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, parents like White-Johnson will spend the next four weeks sharing information about their children with autism to help others better understand the condition.
Many advocates see the annual event as an opportunity to take action on behalf of people with autism and push for more services, equal treatment and an individualized approach to just about everything.
"No matter how you look at it, autism is part of the human fabric," said Steve Silberman, author of "Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity."
"Some of the things we know now that we didn't know 10 years ago is how prevalent it really is, and that people with autism are more like neurotypicals than has been thought for decades," he added.
These are the symptoms that may indicate that your child has autism
What is autism?
Autism is estimated to affect one in 54 children annually, according to 2020 data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
This figure represents a 10% increase from 2014, when the estimate was one in 59.
In general, it is considered a different way of thinking.
If we think of people as computers, people with autism have unique operating systems that allow them to process life and experience the world differently from the rest of the human population.
Researchers know relatively little about this disorder, considered the fastest growing developmental disability.
They know that, on average, the brains of people with autism are larger and that they "prune," or remove, excess neurons more slowly than neurotypical brains.
Scientists have also identified that autism affects the links between the parts of the brain that govern emotions, sensory input, and executive functioning.
Numerous studies have shown that there is no link between vaccines and autism, a misconception propagated by a small but vocal group of skeptics.
Vaccines do not cause autism, according to father of boy with developmental disabilities
Other research has shown that people with autism are less able to take in some of the socially rich features of an environment and incorporate them into a larger understanding of the world.
Experts just don't know what causes it.
Stephen Shore, an associate clinical professor at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y., described autism as both a mystery and a challenge, noting that one of the biggest challenges in understanding the disorder is that it presents differently in each patient .
"When you meet a person with autism, you meet a person with autism; that experience says nothing about autism in general," said Shore, who herself is autistic.
"We need to be aware of, accept and appreciate the incredible diversity that we find within the autism spectrum. What this suggests is that we need to get to know people with autism as individuals, rather than as a set of characteristics."
The Latest in Autism Research
Research on autism is ongoing.
An article from March 2021 indicates that the prevalence of autism in England is much higher than scientists originally thought.
Another study, co-authored by Kevin Pelphrey, Harrison-Wood Jefferson Foundation chair of neurology at the University of Virginia Brain Institute in Charlottesville, suggests that autism may be fundamentally different in girls and boys.
At press time, this work will be published in an upcoming issue of the academic journal Brain.
Pelphrey's work is the latest in a series of recent investigations into a fascinating -- and perplexing -- statistic: Boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls.
Although some of this discrepancy may be attributed to clinical bias (children have historically made up the majority of research subjects), Pelphrey suggested that further investigation could reveal two different types of autism caused by two different underlying mechanisms in the brain , a dichotomy that could in some cases lead to misdiagnosis of other mental health problems.
As researchers continue to examine difficult questions, autism is becoming commonplace.
Whether it's activist Greta Thunberg, singer Susan Boyle, or scientist Temple Grandin, society at large has recently welcomed people with autism and celebrated some of the qualities that make them special.
The creative world is following suit, with books like "The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a 13-Year-Old Boy with Autism";
movies like "Loop," a Pixar short about a black woman with autism;
and TV shows like HBO Max's "On the Spectrum" series (which, like CNN, is owned by AT&T, the parent company of WarnerMedia), the entertainment industry is actively working to remove the stigma that people associated before with autism.
Acceptance may be on the horizon
This trend towards greater acceptance of autism seems to be permeating the business world.
Across the country, companies are embracing people with different brains in the same way they have embraced people of different genders, ethnicities, or religious affiliations.
The buzzword for these efforts is neurodiversity.
These efforts are important;
the Autism Society estimates that about 83% of college graduates with autism are unemployed, compared to the national unemployment rate of 6.2%.
In the last five years, companies such as Microsoft, SAP, Ford, EY and Albertsons have established programs in this area, investing significant resources to hire people with autism and make them feel part of the team.
Other smaller companies are also contributing.
Argo AI, an automated driving technology company in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has partnered with a local nonprofit to research and hire people with autism, and is trying to educate its employees about neurodiversity.
During a recent company meeting, programmer Christopher Pitstick who has autism gave a 30-minute presentation about his life experience, sharing personal stories about what he thinks about during awkward social interactions, and how he tackles a complicated coding project by breaking it into small parts.
"The reception of the talk gave way to volumes of flattering and supportive notes from colleagues across the company, and I continue to receive them long afterward," he wrote in a recent essay on the subject.
Elsewhere, tech companies are devising new products aimed at helping people with nonverbal autism who have fallen behind in their social and emotional skills communicate better.
At Brain Power, a company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for example, researchers created special virtual reality smart headsets designed to help children with nonverbal autism take advantage of role-playing and practice coping with potentially stressful social situations, such as meet new people.
Up to 40% of people with autism may be of the non-verbal type.
"Technology can enhance and support interventions that are already being implemented," says Dr. Arshya Vahabzadeh, a child psychiatrist who is also the company's medical director.
"Sometimes these types of augmentative tools can greatly improve an individual with autism's comfort level in a given situation."
How to make a difference
An easy way to make a difference in this community is to focus on the things that people with autism do well, and recognize those skills as unique.
Another option: Be more aware of involuntary ableism or dismiss eccentric people as "on the spectrum," as it can be detrimental to people with autism and their families.
"Prejudice is the enemy," says Matt Asner, president and CEO of The Ed Asner Family Center, an autism service organization in Reseda, California.
"Especially when we meet a person with autism, we need to understand that they are different, and remember that they think differently. That's what makes them unique, original and beautiful. It's what makes them who they are."
Matt Villano is a writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California.
(This article was originally published on April 2, 2021)
(This article was originally published on April 2, 2021)