By WILLIAM SHANNON
In a hundred years, humans may know all the whys and hows. But right now, we have to work with what information we have in front of us.
The whole point of the annual autism walk and exposition at the Dutchess County Fairgrounds in Rhinebeck Sunday was to get those of us whose lives are busy to think and talk about this mysterious disorder and to feel a bit of the pain of the millions of people affected by it.
The event drew hundreds of people, who, among other activities, walked a large track at the fairgrounds. There were booths and bounce houses, a live band, a motorcycle show, an Elmo impersonator giving out hugs by the dozens and a bit of impromptu Michael Jackson karaoke.
According to the Hudson Valley chapter of the Autism Society—the organizers of the event—the walk has raised more than $1 million to fund local programs and research since its inception.
It was a relaxed and upbeat day at the fairgrounds. It’s the type of event that doesn’t get a whole lot of press, but the underlying issue is much more important than most of today’s most eye-catching headlines.
Autism, to varying degrees, is characterized by difficulties in communication and social interaction.
It affects about 1 in 68 children in the United States and more than 3 million people in the country. The autism rate among children has increased tenfold in the past 40 years, according to Autism Speaks, the leading voice on the disorder.
“Careful research shows that this increase is only partly explained by improved diagnosis and awareness,” the organization says. “Studies also show that autism is four to five times more common among boys than girls. An estimated 1 out of 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls are diagnosed with autism in the United States.”
The reasons why people are born this way are still essentially unknown, but the scientific community seems to be making a bit of headway.
“In the presence of a genetic predisposition to autism,” according to Autism Speaks, “a number of non-genetic, or ‘environmental,’ stresses appear to further increase a child’s risk. The clearest evidence of these autism risk factors involves events before and during birth. They include advanced parental age at time of conception (both mom and dad), maternal illness during pregnancy and certain difficulties during birth, particularly those involving periods of oxygen deprivation to the baby’s brain. It is important to keep in mind that these factors, by themselves, do not cause autism. Rather, in combination with genetic risk factors, they appear to modestly increase risk.”
Until our science is able to really crack the code, the best thing to do is to place yourself in the shoes of those affected and try to err on the side of being compassionate.